Sometimes it doesn’t matter what a song or album leaves you with as long as it leaves you with something. It makes an impression on your heart or your mind in a manner that compels you to recalibrate your perspective by conveying a viewpoint that you otherwise may not be aware of or receptive to, or by evoking some emotion you haven’t felt in a while. Sometimes what you get out of music might not be the realization or emotion that the artist intended to communicate. Sometimes it is something completely different. A sign of good songwriting is when the same song means different things to different people.
Rockingham—the first solo album from American Aquarium’s frontman and songwriter B.J. Barham—was an album that made me come to a pretty keen realization, yet it probably was not the one Barnham set out to impart. Some have been talking about how the new Cody Jinks record I’m Not The Devil is almost a little too weighty. Well if that’s the case, you may not have the emotional fortitude to make it through even half of Rockingham. It’s hard to name another album that works in such dour emotions, or envision one being released in the near future. This album makes John Moreland sound like Sonny and Cher.
Rockingham is a travelogue though certain Southern towns in various states of disrepair and dejection in the aftermath of the implosion of the agrarian and industrial American economy. No punches are pulled, and names are named in regards to the particular towns Barham chooses to highlight, or more accurately, bemoan at the state of affairs that have transpired there. Broken people and broken homes are sung about with cutting, merciless honesty, with the worst details not just uncensored, but emphasized. Rockingham is an ode to desperate people out of money, out of work, and out of options, eaten up with the wanton emotions of not being able to provide for themselves and their families, while the illusion of small-town simplicity is shattered by the gavel of broken dreams.
They say that people fear running out of money even more than the fear of death. This album encapsulates that axiom with anecdotal accounts of the downtrodden one after another. There were fears back in the 90’s of heavy metal bands stimulating teenagers to commit suicide. Well if you’re pondering harakiri, perhaps you should pass on this one, especially the final heartbreaking song “Water in the Well” which is articulated with a gun pointed at the head. There are some slightly bright spots, or perhaps less depressing spots, like the song “Madeline” that finds a father articulating wisdom to a daughter. But even then it’s about the ever-present ills waiting to greet you in life.
This type of stark, pulsating depression is a great way to suck in listeners who like to be thrust into dark moods to feel alive. Musical masochism if you will, with a side of commiseration. The question is valid though if Rockingham is a little bit too brutal to the point where the pain for pleasure just turns into just downright pain. Either way, one particular song “O’ Lover” is worth consideration right beside all those American Aquarium songs as one of the best, taking notes from the great storytelling songwriters of Texas like early Robert Earl Keen and applying it to the theme of Barham’s effort. B.J. has never been a great singer, but he knows how to write songs where that doesn’t really matter.
“You can’t call yourself a farmer just because you plant a seed
You must bargain with the dirt, your hands must blister they must bleed
Only then will you find beauty not in the bloom, but in the weeds
O’ lover love is not the only thing from you I need.”
One of the most important points that Rockingham makes is that these destitute souls have no alternatives because their home is the only home they know. That’s the hardest part to drive home to folks that hear about depressed communities and wonder why folks don’t just move where there is more opportunity. For some, they’ve never left the county, or they’re trying to hold on to a family farm that’s been in their last name for hundreds of years. This great gulf between those that move and those who stay is an often overlooked, but a critically important demarcation with the critically destitute pushed to one side.
Rockingham feels like a side project in the sense that for the most part, the songs are pretty stripped down and the production is simple. It’s not an acoustic album except for a couple of songs, but with the short track list and sedated nature, you get the sense that Barham didn’t want to make too much racket with this record and ultimately distract from American Aquarium. It’s not a solo project amidst the dissolving of a band, but a side project while the band is still at full strength, and it makes sense for Barhman who continues to not only be outspoken when it comes to little issues that may arise in the music scene, whether it be in the songwriting circles he runs in, or the honorary membership he carries with Texas country, but is also continuing to gain wide respect as a songwriter. This album, if nothing else, helps cement Barham’s name beyond American Aquarium.
But what I took from Rockingham was not just an anger at the political and economic injustices that have brought so many of these rural Southern communities to the breaking point, or severe empathy for the people who suffer their lives away in these certain towns. Rockingham, by being so stark and unrelenting had almost the opposite effect on me, where it made me grateful for the meager opportunities that I’ve had, and the sense of stability we all strive for. It made me realize that so much of happiness is simply making up your mind. Parallel to the people portrayed in Rockingham are people who are still happy, even though they have too little of everything they need. They figure it out. They scrape by, and they don’t complain or blame others for their problems.
There’s a Rockingham in all of us, just as there’s a place of happiness. Part of it has to do with where you’re born and your upbringing, but part of it has to do with how much you decide to control your own destiny and mindset. There is no doubt to the authenticity of the people, places, and stories of Rockingham. All you have to do is drive across the country, and you will see what’s happening to the forgotten communities of America. But for me, this record was like a mirror reflecting back judgement for every time first world problems frazzle your nerves while so many other folks struggle not just with their circumstances, but their perspective on them. So many move through life day to day, week to week, and simply hope parish on this mortal coil from natural causes, as opposed to the effort of their own hands. Because that’s the deck that life has dealt them, or so they believe.
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