Review Summary: More than a side project and much more than a story.Routine Maintenance
, from both a musical and narrative perspective, ends before the last two songs even play. “God and the Billboards” – a song that is barely about God and even less about billboards – comes after seven songs that cover months of time and growth for Dan Campbell’s titular Aaron West character. More accurately, it comes after a debut album, an EP, a single, and then
seven songs, all telling the story of a lonely, broke-down shell of a man trying to rebuild his life after marital disaster. All of the growth in all of those songs leads him to the moment in “God and the Billboards” when his sister reaches out in a moment of need, he answers the call, the strings swell in anticipation, and then he starts driving home. Aaron West, heading east.
It could end right there, with an endless highway stretching into the distance, the sun in the rearview mirror. Most albums would. Yet, as it did for Ishmael after the Pequod
was destroyed, life goes on. After the musical climax, after the seemingly natural endpoint of the narrative, there are still pieces to pick up, lessons to be learned, hard work to be done. The boring and necessary maintenance that comes when you finally stop running away. He goes to his brother-in-law’s funeral, teaches his nephew some organ chords, makes food, changes the oil in his mom’s car. These things are boring or tedious when you and I have to do them, but they are absolutely beautiful and life-affirming in the hands of Campbell, who, in some ways, has showed the best sides of his writing with Aaron West.
This project has always been more promising than a mere side gig, but Routine Maintenance
feels fully formed and novelistic in a way that We Don’t Have Each Other
did not. Perhaps that is a function of the concept. We know Aaron West now, especially the worst parts of him, his failures and weaknesses. Each song swings with the combined weight of the ones that came before. As the story goes on, they hit harder and harder. “Rosa and Reseda,” the fulcrum on which the album rests, is the best example of this. After so much bad luck and poor choices, Campbell lets the metaphors and imagery drop away in favor of plaintive language that speaks to the comfortable complacency of a growing friendship – “We used to smoke in the fire escape; now we just smoke in the living room” – and just how much that simple, deep bond means to him – “When I so desperately needed a friend, Rosa was a friend.”
From the first song on We Don’t Have Each Other
, it was clear that Aaron West was not one of the folk projects so common to pop-punk frontmen. There was a banjo, there were horns, there were interesting song structures and time signatures. Routine Maintenance
takes that even further. Campbell’s voice – and by extension, West’s – is almost drowned out by horns in “Lead Paint and Salt Air,” a song that finds triumph in isolation and a clear head. “Bury Me Anywhere Else” ends with a saxophone solo reminiscent, appropriately, of the sadly forgotten band The State Lottery. “God and the Billboards” is basically a country song, all Nashville drums and fiddles. “Runnin’ Toward the Light” sounds like “Born to Run” but is really the band’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a creation myth that overtly references every named character in the Aaron West canon. When he names them, he’s reminded of the role they played in his story. The past, like the resilient green couch from “Green Like the G Train, Green Like Sea Foam,” is always encroaching on the present, up to the last song that references “Orchard Park” and the scattering of ashes.
The title track is the last sentence in a chapter, and someday soon Campbell will turn the page. Maybe we’ll find out that Aaron West squandered the hope he found when he finally made it back home. Maybe it wasn’t really hope at all. That I want so badly to know what happens next shows the surprising power of this project, and that I can stand to wait shows the quality of the songs released so far. “Carolina Coast” ended with West deciding to live. “Routine Maintenance” ends with him finding something to live for
. And, of course, neither song was really the last song
. They were simply reminders that a revelation, however hard-won, is a beginning, not an end.