Aaron Semer kicks off his latest album, Cape Disappointment, with sparse acoustic guitar chords and an undercurrent of feedback noise as he sings the opening lines. “Another god awakens / A god of our own making / Of information and wires / A brand new network of stars.” It’s a spine-tingling, anthemic introduction, and the song – “A God That’s All Hours” – opens the album fittingly, as Cape Disappointment is Semer bringing his wide-ranging world view into focus. His songs are about love, loss, social justice, family life, and crimes, both small and large. His songs have been compared to everyone from Warren Zevon to Randy Newman to Lucinda Williams, and that’s just scratching the surface. If you think it’s all PR hyperbole, you haven’t heard the album.
The Ohio-born, Seattle-based Semer was formerly the singer and songwriter of the twangy, power-pop band the Plains before he stepped out on his own with the solo album Love Amidst Collapse in 2015. Cape Disappointment was written in January 2017 primarily in a vintage trailer home in Seaview, Washington. The title – named after a real location in Washington state where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean – seemed fitting to Semer, who calls it his “midlife crisis album”. He said on his website that the title is the perfect metaphor. “It’s not that life is disappointing – I’ve done a lot of wonderful things with my life – it’s that sweet sorrow of knowing you’re halfway through.”
Like its predecessor, Cape Disappointment sees Semer taking a stripped-down approach to the instrumentation. There’s a full band, but it’s primarily fueled by acoustic guitars, giving Semer’s biting and often emotionally resonant lyrics a chance to be clearly heard within a down-home Americana backdrop. The single “Settle In” is a ruminative take on love lost and found, and while it may sound downbeat on the surface, it’s essentially an optimistic view of the patient art of finding the right companion. “You don’t have to try to be anybody,” Semer sings, “‘Cause that kind of love, it just never lasts / Baby you can settle in.” The track’s easygoing country/folk arrangement sets the perfect pace, with Charles Wicklander’s piano filling the empty spaces like a warm coat.
Semer also proves to be a storyteller of the highest order, most notably on the stunning “Risingsun, OH”. In the song, a woman is financially affected by the failures of her small town and turns hesitantly to crime to make ends meet. Semer paints a simple yet effective picture of the real-life Risingsun in the eloquent chorus: “Talk about a town with one stoplight / You could drive right through it in the middle of the night / And not even know that you had been in Risingsun.” Acoustic and electric guitars weave in and out of the compelling story, and the result is like something John Hiatt would’ve included on Slow Turning. “Bones for the Catacombs” is another terrific yarn, this one taking place in 18th century Paris with a young man and a rich woman running off to start a life together against the odds. Pairing up this period tale with driving guitars over a steady beat is a refreshing bit of stylistic anachronism – a less imaginative arranger would use strings or a harpsichord – and the accompanying video is a fun nod to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” clip from Don’t Look Back.
But it’s not just small-town vignettes and tales of forbidden love. On “(Little Black Square on My) Profile Pic”, Semer goes global with a lively, topical protest song about the dangers of armchair activism. Climate change, Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and yes, the spray-tanned occupant of the White House all get equal coverage here. On the subject of the pipeline, Aaron sings “We gotta stop it now, I said ‘not one iota’ / So grab your coat and hat because we’re goin’ to Dakota / But I can’t go that far, it’ll make me homesick / I’ll put a little black square on my profile pic.” Have this song on standby the next time you’re on social media, and you think your rants alone are truly making a difference.
Semer is equally adept at a good old fashioned country-fried singalong, and on “We All Dance Together With the Band”, you can practically hear bottles clanking and see beer taps being pulled. The song rambles on for more than six minutes, but it never seems to drag, as each verse and chorus is savored. Similarly, Semer drawls along about the pointlessness of the daily grind on “Ball and Chain”, and the band rises to the occasion on the simple-yet-effective chorus. “Get out the ball and chain / I wanna hook up that ball and chain / And never be free again.”
Cape Disappointment closes with “The Time We Used to Kill”, a verbose, emotionally raw story of a disintegrating relationship. Accompanied by solo acoustic guitar, Semer looks back with a mix of contempt and acceptance. “We’ve let a lot of time and distance come between us,” he sings in the chorus, “But I sure do miss the time we used to kill.” Aaron Semer draws from the tradition of the best singer/songwriters in that he can write about any variety of topics and make it all seem too easy. With Cape Disappointment, he deserves a seat at the table alongside Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle, Warren Zevon, and John Prine. He’s that good.