American Aquarium should no longer be around. It was a marginal name to begin with, and for a band that was tough to define or find a home for, and that was built upon the concept of drugs, drinking, and the implosion of life before you’re 30. Burn. Flicker. Die. was the apt title of the band’s 2012 record produced by Jason Isbell, who at the time was assailed by his own personal demons similar to American Aquarium, trying to make it in “Americana” by staying just sober enough to sustain. The theme of Burn. Flicker. Die. was desperation, the frustration of not making it in the music business, and careening towards drug-fueled implosion. At least they were writing and singing what they knew about.
But frontman and songwriter BJ Barham was too stupid to quit. When the band ran into a dead end with their brand of drug-laced and rowdy rock-style Americana, they tried to take a highly stylized approach with their next album Wolves—a much more genteel sound compared to previous efforts. Some of the songwriting held up at least. “Losing Side of Twenty Five” is still one of the band’s signature tunes. But Wolves made the band’s hard-to-define nature even more nebulous, while leaving behind some of their country and crunchy rock fans with the production approach.
At some point American Aquarium started bumming around Texas and Oklahoma more as opposed to their old circles in Southern Americana. It was facilitated by signing with the Texas-centric booking agency Red 11. They’ve always been a live band first, relying on incessant, dogged touring to garner any take home pay. BJ Barham found sobriety, but the addiction of the road sustained. And after break neck tour schedules and internal drama, soon the American Aquarium concept imploded around him. In the spring of 2017, every single member of the Raleigh-based band left in a domino-style series of social media posts. Over 3000 live shows played, and BJ Barham was back to square one.
The band had always been about Barham principally, so why not go solo? But BJ is not a quitter. His nose-to-the-grindstone, blue collar attitude was always what made American Aquarium’s music more appealing than the sum of its parts. Almost as a point of principle, he refused to give up on the name, and not only cobbled together a capable lineup of fellow musicians willing to put up with him on long hauls, but not having to worry about long-established loyalties, Barhman was able to reconstitute American Aquarium from the ground up, which not only salvaged the band, but arguably put it on the most sure footing of its history. They started touring, and soon New West took notice and the band signed its biggest record deal to date.
Things Change gives you a lot to unpack, and depending on your political alignment, begins by hitting you right between the eyes. The first song “The World Is On Fire” leaves no room for interpretation. BJ Barham is letting you know how he feels about the recent election of the sitting American President. And as is often the result of such things in these polarized times, American Aquarium parses their fans straight in half, especially since they’ve made such a home in the conservative-leaning Texoma scene.
But that doesn’t make “The World Is On Fire” a bad song. In fact it’s great at conveying what millions of people felt in November of 2017, regardless if you empathize or you’re revolted by that. BJ’s songwriting has often been about delving into the worst fears of working class people—something he experienced personally growing up in the tobacco region of Carolina, and something that is very relevant for many in today’s political landscape.
However Things Change is not a political album as you may surmise from the first song. That’s how it will be taken by many who will hear the “The World Is On Fire” and won’t venture any further, fair or not. Things Change is poorly sequenced for a number of reasons, the first being the decision to start the record with the most polarizing song—something I’m sure Barham and others will assure they don’t give a shit about. But if you’re looking to convey a message, why not first work to open your audience’s heart instead of alienating them right off the bat? Things Change also has a surprising amount of straight up country songs on it. That’s a great thing, but they’re all weighted towards the back end. If anything, the track list could have been inverted to make Things Change more effective.
But questioning track placement is about where the concerns for Things Change expire. BJ Barham has made a career out of his ambition, guts, and determination overriding an average voice, and a general lack of direction in how to convey otherwise really good songs. His train wreck nature may be fetching for the forlorn and broken hearted, but it doesn’t make for good business, or a sustainable plan. But now with a sober mind, a brand new band, and possibly the biggest asset for Things Change—Oklahoma songwriter John Fullbright in the producer seat—BJ Barham and American Aquarium have finally found their sound, their voice, and released arguably the best record of the band’s run, and maybe one of the best of 2018.
Things Change is an absolute songwriting clinic. Barham turns in multiple songs like “When We Were Younger Men,” “One Day At A Time,” and “Shadows Of You” that all make immediate bids for some of the best songs to be released all year. Barham also keeps it feisty with “Tough Folks,” and delivers just a good ol’ country song in “I Gave Up The Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me).” And no song is burdened by questions like “what do you call it?” or “Why did they do that?” Each song is clothed in the appropriate mood. Many textures and emotions are touched upon. And moreover, much of this record—especially the second half—is by God country.
Backed into a corner is where an artist and songwriter like BJ Barham performs at his best. With a guy like this, defeat is where he finds his greatest inspiration, his most deep-seeded determination, and his willingness to sacrifice it all for the cause, and the dream. Limping along just successful enough to sustain was not the right place for American Aquarium. It all needed to implode for it to ultimately succeed. It’s gutting out a living, and giving a middle finger to the sweltering sun that has always been at the core of American Aquarium—a philosophy like is embodied in the song “Work Conquers All” from Things Change.
BJ Barham pens his best material by not embellishing the struggles of young adulthood, and peppering songs with drug references to make them fashionable. He does it by being brutally honest about his struggles, with addiction, with a band that keeps blowing up, with equilibrium in a polarized society, with growing old.
Give credit to the rest of the band too, Shane Boeker on lead guitar, Joey Bybee on drums, Ben Hussey on bass, and especially Adam Kurtz on pedal steel, who in certain moments like in the chorus of “When We Were Younger Men,” positively makes this record. As castoffs from other projects and 3rd or 4th generation American Aquarium personnel in certain positions, they took BJ Barham’s and John Fullbright’s vision and purpose, and made it their own. With all due respect to previous AA members—and there have been some great ones—this is the best lineup in the band’s history when considering it as a cohesive unit.
Even the political stuff here is done with such better tact and respect than others recently. The line “And last November I saw first hand what desperation makes good people do…” from the song “Tough Folks” does so much better at encapsulating the political dilemma the United States is in. Instead of insulting people, it recognizes their inherent goodness, regardless of their political stripes. Contrast this between the judgemental and ineffective venting of anger in recent projects. This approach helps to bridge understanding as opposed to drawing hard lines.
Seven studio albums in is about the time you start ignoring a band as the treads wear down and the sound begins to dull. But out of the smoldering ashes of American Aquarium 1.0, this band found its footing, and it is truly something to behold.
Two Guns Up (9.5/10)
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