B.J. Barham is one insufferable son-of-a-bitch. The frontman and final original member of North Carolina’s American Aquarium has run off a quarter hundred fellow bandmates over the years for one reason or another. And as an opinionated, cantankerous, politically acrimonious type of character with his glass perennially half empty, his mopey moanings make for some of the most depressingly severe musings to be found in all of American music. It just happens to be that it’s this very type of bad medicine many are looking for.
Barham was never pretty enough for Nashville, and his natural songwriting chops couldn’t compete with his heroes like Jason Isbell or Ben Nichols. But he guts it out, taking a blue-collar attitude and work ethic to his craft, spilling blood on legal pads until the right words coagulate like scabs over scar tissue, while the dogs, the dregs, and the left behinds of society pump their fists in approval. B.J. is an anti-star if there ever was one, and has shouted and clawed his way to a place on the short list of many people’s favorite modern songwriters.
Teaming with Shooter Jennings as producer, B.J. and American Aquarium capture Lamentations as a postscript to the broken American Dream, sent through the filter of a Southern perspective, and stamped into 10 songs that are sure to compel your consideration, and for some, draw a measure of scrutiny. As always, singing to the other half and the left behinds means the emotions are raw and the stories are real, with lessons aplenty when you take the time to unpeel the rind and savor the meanings.
Some will love to label this record as a political work, and a rebuke of Trump’s white America. While it’s most certainly true that B.J. is not afraid of wading into political waters and doing rigorous butterfly strokes toward the left direction, he always weighs the perspectives of those swimming the opposite way as well, mindful that many of them make up the meat and potatoes of his audience. His opinions are his, but if anyone is most spoken to on Lamentations, it’s those forgotten in the middle by both ideologies, as is sung about in the opening song. The balance of perspective he brings to his music is something certain other songwriters in the Americana realm could learn from. B.J.’s Barham’s judgements can be severe. But nobody is judged more severely in an American Aquarium song than B.J. Barham himself.
That is really what should be taken away from Lamentations. “Six Years Come September” isn’t just a story of sobriety, it’s one of realization and regret. “The Day I Learned To Lie To You” says so much in just the title, but wait until you hear the rest. And “How Wicked I Was” will make quick work of your emotional defenses if you’ve ever been party to a divorce with kids.
“The harder you work, the luckier you get” doesn’t just make for a good hook for a song, it’s the way B.J. Barham approaches life and music, touring more than most anyone, torturing himself to always get better and produce more, and rise above his talent and station. It’s these testimonials like in the final song on the album called “Long Haul” that touch a nerve with his tough-as-nails underdog crowd no matter what their political stripes. It’s also what results in music better than most.
Compared to American Aquarium’s last record Things Change with its surprisingly country in sound, Lamentations is a measure more lush and involved in the production and music. Drama in the words is matched with melodic waves and tangential exits like at the end of the songs “Me + Mine” and “Brightleaf + Burley,” rendering this record much more immersive than your average country project, and maybe more indicative of mid-career Bruce Springsteen.
Some on the country side may not be up for some moments of the Lamentations journey and will be left behind. Steel guitar does ground most of the effort in the roots. But “The Day I Learned to Lie To You” could have been the perfect Hank-style country song if the keys and horns didn’t make it more of an Americana offering. The only exclusively political song called “A Better South” could have lent a bit more context into what makes the South such a complicated subject and some of its residents cling so hard to its heritage, but Barham’s pleas to leave behind the worst of Southern America’s legacy should ring universal.
When compared with other American Aquarium output, some of the songs of Lamentations feel a little par. B.J. goes back to one of his crutch themes of the Carolina tobacco fields in “Brightleaf + Burley,” even if this one has a new wrinkle in suggesting the marijuana trade as a worthy replacement for the Cancer crop. And once again his harsh assessment of the crestfallen American Dream probably deserves a more balanced perspective of how even the worst off have it so much better than in most of the world. A little more gratefulness for the good in life is probably due, but that’s not really what American Aquarium is about.
Some will bandy about this record as the best released so far in 2020, and it sure makes a big case for itself, especially in the Americana and songwriting realm, while also making for a good specimen of a record that is able to broach political subjects in a respectful manner in what promises to be a very political year in American roots music.
But no matter where it lands on the end-of-year lists, Lamentations is once again a testament to B.J. Barham’s insistence to not just refuse to shield our eyes from the growing entropy in American life, but to inspire us all to persevere through it and to rise above the cards we’re dealt, just like he has done continuously throughout his career.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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