The Dan Campbell/Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties Albums Ranked
Dan “Soupy” Campbell is best known for his role as the vocalist and primary songwriter for pop punk outfit The Wonder Years, a band that I greatly enjoy. The Wonder Years’ progression, like many other pop punk groups, has been marked by a turn from a riotous angst to a quieter one, reflecting the aging of its members. Taking this “softer” side a step further, Campbell created a solo project in 2014 called Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties, a concept that follows the life of a profoundly unfortunate fellow. In spite of its name, Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties is not another band fronted by Campbell in some other guise; it essentially stands as its own acoustic solo project. And now, with the release of “Dan Campbell’s” OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES in November 2021, he has released three albums either under the Aaron West moniker or his own name since 2014. They’re also supported by the EPs BITTERSWEET (2016, an Aaron West release) and CLEAR EYES FANZINE: SEASON ONE, EPISODES 1–6 (2019, a solo-ish collaboration with Ace Enders of The Early November that covers the events of the TV show FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS [2006–2011]). Both of these were listened to in preparation of ranking the three albums from (mostly) Campbell himself. The progression, or regression, is pretty simple, but it should be noted that each of these records is good-to-great.
#3 — OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES (2021)
Favorite track: “In Love in Various Rooms”
OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES is Dan Campbell’s first album released under his name alone. In spite of that distinction, it isn’t greatly different from the acoustically angsty style of the two Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties records. However, what I think Campbell has done across his three full-length solo releases is diversify the emotion and sound. OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES is the most jangly and upbeat of his albums, and that makes for a welcome diversification across its tracks. Campbell employs some pretty good pop hooks in fusion with his plaintive voice and trademark emotional lyrical content, but ultimately, OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES feels the most fleeting of his albums, at least at this stage. It just isn’t as emotionally resonant, or musically powerful, as the Aaron West stuff.
#2 — ROUTINE MAINTENANCE (2019)
Favorite track: “Runnin’ Toward the Light”
As mentioned in the last writeup, Campbell has been able to spread out the angst, as it were, since WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER, the first Aaron West album. That can certainly be heard on “Runnin’ Toward the Light,” from follow up ROUTINE MAINTENANCE. It has a great soaring chorus and lyrical content that moves past the self-pity and self-destruction of WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER. Also as mentioned (in the intro), the Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties project hinges on a central concept: this guy named Aaron West just has a terrible time of things. I won’t say more to avoid spoiling too much, not because the story is necessarily ruined by such things, but because the impact of the narrative is worth piecing together over the course of a few listens. Suffice to say, things do improve for Aaron in the telling of ROUTINE MAINTENANCE, and Campbell renders that improvement with a poppier sound here and there while maintaining the acoustic Americana sound he debuted on WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER.
#1 — WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER (2014)
Favorite track: “The Thunderbird Inn”
But Aaron’s suffering is ironically more compelling. WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER, Campbell’s solo debut, is his best work “on his own” (he is of course accompanied by other musicians on these solo records). Granted, the nearly one-note reiteration of Aaron’s terrible life situation and depression can take a bit of a toll. But in the right frame of mind, such as the depressive one I found myself in when I was listening to WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER and “The Thunderbird Inn” in particular over and over, the story Campbell crafted is incredibly moving. And even outside it, I’ve been able to appreciate the reflection of our worst moments in exaggerated emotional fashion. The lyrics are just so potent in their emotional simplicity and, well, neediness. But they are only powerful because Campbell also delivers them with a great evolution of the pop punk vocal style, and because the music surrounding them is an effective styling of Americana, folk, and yes, pop punk. WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER is set and produced in modern times, but something about it feels older, and the production and songwriting hooks envelop me in a tale that is tragic, but also inclusive in its human need.