Peter Donovan is an astute musical storyteller. His perceptive songs span genres and feature narratives based on both real-life and fictitious characters, written with a contemplative heart. After finding success and a dedicated fanbase with Seattle’s All The Real Girls and his side project The Rose Petals (alongside Elijah Ocean), Donovan returns this spring with his first proper solo album, This Better Be Good (4/29).
Donovan’s previous releases spun tales ranging from the little-known exploits of former presidents to an account of falling in love with a vampire. These expertly-crafted character sketches earned plaudits from Paste Magazine, Consequence of Sound, American Songwriter, and more. With critical success has come the confidence to spread his wings, so to speak, and share stories from a more personal place. With This Better Be Good, Donovan created an album using a myriad of influences, from Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, to Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson, Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty. It combines the plaintive soul of indie rock, the heartfelt sincerity of Americana, and the stirring studio pageantry of ‘70s singer-songwriters, drawing them together to explore more intimate depths.
This Better Be Good was recorded primarily live in just three days, with only a few prior rehearsals and minimal overdubs by Bradley Laina at Strange Earth Studios in Seattle. “We wanted to capture the unpredictability of a band in a room,” Donovan says. “And most importantly, we wanted to capture the togetherness. We’d all spent far too much time alone.”
Not only is the album Donovan’s most personal effort yet, but it is also a document of him rediscovering what he truly loves; music and its inherent camaraderie serving as a beacon of light, guiding him through the darkest days of the pandemic.
“Soon after quarantine began back in March 2020, I started passing the time with a challenge amongst friends to learn a new Beatles song each day. We would record performances on our phones and upload the videos to a social media page we called ‘Breakfast With The Beatles,’ he explains. “Early on in the pandemic, it was an excellent way to keep busy and motivated to continue playing music. Most importantly, it was a way for all of us to still feel connected.”
Donovan learned one Beatles tune per day for 55 days, at which point he was finally feeling inspired to try writing some new songs of his own. So instead of playing the Beatles, his new challenge was to try and write a new song every day. These are the songs that became This Better Be Good.
Shades of his experiences make themselves known in subtle ways throughout the record. At its core, this album is a new beginning for Donovan, and the stories he shares are some of his most stirring yet. Most often the record finds Donovan surveying loves of years gone by. As he explains, “The experiences I drew on were past relationships — the ones that didn’t work out. So, on a basic level, this is a break-up record. But, these heartbreaks happened a long time ago, and the wounds are no longer fresh. A few scars remain, but the distance has allowed me a new perspective.”
The songs are more reflective than bitter, more nostalgic than sad. It’s an album about learning and growing from lived experiences and reflecting on past failures in the interest of future successes. Sometimes, these reflections are colored with the gentle fondness of memory, as showcased on the wistful balladry of “White Lies.” Elsewhere, a tinge of regret breaks through, as on the devastating fading love of “Goodbye for Now” or the missed chances of “In Another Life.”
Still, the record ends with a hint of optimism with the blissfully unaware and stupidly optimistic “Don’t Drag Me Down.” Having loved and lost, Donovan takes one final look at his collective past and performs a sort of epilogue with the final song on the album, “If I Knew Then,” a song about not learning your lesson and then not learning your lesson about not learning your lesson. This Better Be Good is a loose concept record about the ups and downs of an ultimately doomed romance between two people. Each song is intended to be a snapshot somewhere along the timeline of their turbulent relationship and inevitable break-up. The result is a cohesive album featuring heartfelt sincerity and power pop flourishes. Peter Donovan has managed to create an album that is sonically nostalgic and modern at once, both soul-stirring and dripping with heartache. It’s a roadmap of his past seen through fresh eyes, and a triumphant first step in this new chapter.