Review Summary: Take the car and run.
The Wonder Years have made their way to the forefront of the modern pop-punk scene with a blistering combination of addictive hooks and high-technicality instrumentals, and yet any fan will tell you that their true heart and soul lies in Soupy's increasingly powerful voice and the relatable, everyman lyrics which he seems to be able to pen without end, narrating a tale of disillusionment and fighting depression that spans three whole albums. The great irony lies in that although the concept of the Wonder Years' trilogy is supposed to be overcoming sadness, Soupy's lyrics only seem to have gotten sadder as the band have grown bigger and bigger. The Upsides
was chock-full of witty gags and humorous one-liners just as much as it was depressing realities; for every desperate cry of "I'm afraid that we're wasting away" there was a toothy-grinning shout of "I'll see you motherfuckers in hell!" that proved irresistible to sing along to. So when Soupy sang "if this year would just end, I think we'd all be okay," we believed him, maybe because we wanted to or needed to, but we believed him. The same goes for Suburbia
, which was noticeably sparser on the witty gags front but still ended with the grudgingly hoping-against-hope "I know we've got miles to go but I'm putting my shoulder to the wheel!" The Greatest Generation
changed all that. There was no humour to be found on that record, only tale after tale of desperation, the loss of family members, freezing cold winters and vindictive demons. The final lines of that album, in contrast to those from the other two albums, sounded like the mantra of man who had already accepted he was dead: "I just wanna know that I did all I could with what I was given." It was a soul-crushing way to end a trilogy in which so many small lights of hope were dotted across the black canvas of depression; soul-crushing for the fans, and this surely can't just be me, who had become invested in Soupy's tale just as much as they had in his music and were praying for a happy ending, praying because if Soupy can fight his way out through all that shit, surely we all could, right? I know I'm tangentialising here, because this review isn't about the Wonder Years, but bear with me. The point to take from all that ramble is that Soupy knows how to spin a hell of a tale. His cynicism is understandable, his depression is relatable, and his humour is often the desperate, keeping-away-the-darkness kind of dry wit, but the audience is with him every step of the way. And it is this fact that makes We Don't Have Each Other
the greatest thing that he has accomplished to date.
We Don't Have Each Other
is Soupy's most complete and well-rounded work. The story may be fictional – the amount to which it is being reasonably doubtful – but it feels as real as anything Soupy's written in the Wonder Years, as if West himself were narrating his story from somewhere in between the sound frequencies, the twists and turns of his tale caught up amongst the melodies and broadcast in the raw pain in Soupy's voice and the quiet hum of his guitar. And yet on that point, Soupy is clever enough to not restrict himself to mid-tempo 'vocals + guitar' cuts for the album's admittedly brief runtime. Instead, moments of drums, electric guitar, banjo, harmonica and even trumpet are liable to pop up at a moment's notice to keep the tempo variant and melodies expressive. And, true to the artist's intentions, it is these relatively upbeat – musically, at least – moments such as "St. Joe Keeps Us Safe" and "You Ain't No Saint" which by contrast make the bare-bones tunes such as "Divorce and the American South" and "Carolina Coast" such obvious album highlights from an emotional standpoint.
On the subject of emotion, the story of Aaron West could hardly be called blindingly original. It's not as if the topic of break-ups hasn't been pinned down, killed, buried, dug up again and burnt at the stake a thousand times before. And yet it is Soupy's focus on minutiae, on every tiny detail of the concept, that kills any cliches stone-dead and makes We Don't Have Each Other
such a journey for the listener. In fact, true to Soupy's reputation, it is not the most obviously sad lyrics but the ones which are most representative of everyday life that hit the listener the hardest. With lines like "Hey, Dianne/I've been trying to quit/I went from pack and a half a day to this e-cigarette bullshit/It don't give me what I want, but it stops them coughing fits/Oh, I know how you hate it" it becomes difficult to believe anything but that Soupy knows the character he has created, inside and out, with every scar and bruise and tear, every good day and bad day, all the highs and lows and in-betweens. And with such a believable and real character telling the story, good luck not getting a bit emotional when lines such as "I drank my last paycheck dry/And outside, a homeless man asks me for change and I/Look him straight in his eyes/He starts to apologise/Tells me god's got a plan for me and that it'll be alright/I didn't know that I looked that pathetic" pop up on "The Thunderbird Inn" without any particular ceremony or grandeur. (Not to mention those fucking
day-lillies and that moment when they recur in "Carolina Coast" - I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's close to becoming overwhelming.)
And yet, for all the sadness and bitterness that pervades through almost every moment of the album, it is the brief moment of hope at the end of "Carolina Coast" that proves to be the most emotional of all, as Soupy/West finally raises his eyes to the heavens and promises "I won't lay down and die." You couldn't ask for a more satisfying ending to a story which, ultimately, is about West and only West. For all the pleas and dedications to Dianne, the audience doesn't know anything about her. She is never described, either in personality or appearance, by Soupy and that's just the way it needs to be. Ultimately, We Don't Have Each Other
doesn't exist to convey some kind of moral message, or advice, or even comfort. It exists to take a snapshot of a life which exists in Soupy's head and play it out, much like a stop-motion picture, but with melodies and lyrics taking the place of frames and images. In fact, with the level of detail Soupy provides, it isn't at all hard to imagine real photos of Aaron West's life, the kind of grainy, badly-shot photos taken by inexperienced brothers, sisters and cousins which often end up meaning much more to us than any professional shot – West sitting next to his father on the couch, Bills hat perched on his head, explaining what's happening in the game; his mother sitting smiling in the lounge-room surrounded by statues of saints and paintings of Jesus; West and Dianne, arm in arm, the slightest bulge of the stomach giving away the signs of an early pregnancy. Of course, these photos don't exist, but that's not the point: the point is that Soupy wrote everything on this album for himself, not for anyone in his fanbase, and in the end that will surely be what makes his fanbase adore it so much.
The beauty of We Don't Have Each Other
comes, then, not from its theme, or consistently fantastic set of songs, or even the sheer power in the voice of a man who has made almost unbelievable levels of progress since the beginning of his career (just listen to the end of "St. Joe" and tell me it isn't his finest performance to date) – no, it comes from the attention to detail, the minutiae that Soupy describes along every step of the way, his absolute understanding of the character he has created on every conceivable level. So much so that the audience, swept up in the tidal wave of emotion resulting from West's divorce, can empathise with him every step of the way; can feel the pain, fictional or not, of the loss of a child, of a divorce, of a freezing cold night sleeping in the back of the car with only dashboard heat, dreams about drowning and planes crashing, can even feel the dry crackle of dead day-lillies in their hand and smell the salt drifting in from the Carolina coast. It isn't easy to be confronted with this kind of gritty realism, the kind of story where one of the only glimmers of happiness is a clerk who's nice enough to ask if it's been a long night, but as the last notes of "Carolina Coast" fade there can be no doubt that it's a rewarding one. And even if Soupy does occasionally have a penchant for the melodramatic - "If someone bombed heaven/The sky would look like it did tonight/All fractured and outlines", for example - any lines that might seem cheesy otherwise are so effortlessly worked into the context of the album that they don't seem incongruous.
The extent to which album is autobiographical, fictional, or in-between is really irrelevant, because just like in the Wonder Years' trilogy of albums, the audience is captivated at every development and invested with Soupy's – or West's – story beyond the point of return. And if any of We Don't Have Each Other
is in fact rooted in reality, then there's no doubt to be had that Soupy really does have miles to go. Yet as a man who's managed to move so goddamn many people over such a short career must be aware, loneliness has the sharpest claws and the most vicious bite of all. So from me to you, Soupy, in all sincerity, I hope to god you make it out of there alive.