Album review: Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties – In Lieu Of Flowers

The Wonder Years’ Dan Campbell dives even deeper into the life and trauma of his fictional alter-ego, Aaron West...

Album review: Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties – In Lieu Of Flowers
Mischa Pearlman

When is an album not just album? It’s a question without a single definitive answer, but that’s most definitely what In Lieu Of Flowers is. The third, and allegedly the final, album in the Aaron West narrative, it’s part of an immersive, multi-dimensional experience that, over the last decade, has seen the character created by The Wonder Years' Dan Campbell experience unfathomable pain and loss.

The songs – initially defined by Dan as “a character study through music” – expound on Aaron’s narrative, telling his tragic story through emotive lyrics. It’s set to a more Americana style of music than anything his other band has ever done, but contains the same passionate intensity. That it’s been such a believable and moving journey is testament to Dan’s songwriting skills. For example, even though Dan is teetotal, Aaron is kind of a raging alcoholic, and you never blink when lyrics mention alcohol.

Live, Dan fully assumes/inhabits/possesses that character, bringing him and his story to life in a kind of post-modern, mega-meta, self-aware manner. Indeed, the day before In Lieu Of Flowers' release, Aaron (not Dan) and his now-16-piece band did a livestream as a part of the story. Aaron, you see, also plays in a band, and many of the songs across the releases to date have seen him struggle with the rigours of touring in a not-very-successful band. It’s actually an incredibly comprehensively thought-out project, but at no point has the music ever played second fiddle.

In Lieu Of Flowers is no exception. Heart-torn and pained, the album begins with Smoking Rooms, a gentle, slightly raw acoustic song complete with indistinct chatter in the background to signify that this is Aaron playing live. Were this The Wonder Years – and there are of course similarities – the crowd would be singing along at full lung, but there’s none of that here.

As the song reaches its climax, though, Springsteen-esque horns break through the fourth wall, and the album proper begins in earnest. Earnest, is an appropriate word, too – the countryfied loneliness of Paying Bills At The End Of The World and Whiplash, the up-tempo, frazzled Alone At St. Lukes (replete with a cheeky “fuck the Tories” reference) and the ironically warm and fuzzy sadness and alienation of the title track all exude an incredible pathos that seeps deep into your bones. It all finishes with the quiet, downtrodden Dead Leaves, which brings this album – and possibly the whole project – to a rousing, poignant conclusion.

If this is, indeed, the end, it’s a wonderful and profound way with which to say goodbye. It would, however, be a great shame if this was the last we ever hear from Aaron West, because this is more than an album. It’s an actual life. Someone go and have a word with Dan…

Verdict: 4/5

For fans of: The Hold Steady, The Menzingers, Brian Fallon

In Lieu Of Flowers is out now via Hopeless

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