Song Review – American Aquarium’s “The Long Haul”

photo: Joshua Black Wilkins

It’s from the same well of passion that allows music fans to feel such a deep affinity for their favorite artists that a converse reaction can be observed where they hate a particular artist so spectacularly, they lose touch with the important things in life. One favorite insult to hurl at a hated artist is to claim lost their fastball once they got sober. Though there’s ample evidence in the historical record of popular music to refute this—the output of songwriters such as Jason Isbell and American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham is a good place to start—it’s still barked out commonly, and callously.

BJ Barham has been counted out more than a few times throughout his career. Back in the earlier days of American Aquarium, it was due to substance abuse and burnout. Today, BJ’s sobriety is what is cited by some as his bane. Make no mistake, Barham can twist off at a moment’s notice about some trifle, and ruffle feathers either from the stage and on social media, while he’s run through a litany of bandmates over the years (he’s the only original member of American Aquarium left). But when he channels those passions and frustrations into the end of a writing implement, the results are hard to argue with.

Like we saw with American Aquarium’s last record, the very well-received Things Change, BJ Barham might perform best when his back is against the wall, folks are counting him out, and he’s got something to prove—his level of sobriety notwithstanding. He relishes the underdog position. There’s nothing really existential threatening American Aquarium at the moment. The band is actually doing as good or better than ever, getting ready to make a Grand Ole Opry debut on May 1st—the same day they will also release their latest record Lamentations via New West Records. But Barham draws from his hard-fought successes, and his hard-nosed, dogged spirit for the first song released from the record, “The Long Haul.”

This personal tale of being counted out, getting sober, persevering, and appreciating the woman standing by his side makes the story behind “The Long Haul” reverberate as soundly as the favorable melody. Similar to the style to the band’s previous record, “The Long Haul” finds a more country feel compared to the more alt-country sound of earlier American Aquarium records, helped along by ample steel guitar, and the latitude allotted to the lead players to noodle a little after the final chorus.

BJ’s story is all his own, but it’s also the story of many of us. Each day and week is filled with ups and downs, little victories, major defeats. But the ones who persevere and succeed are often those who can wrestle through adversity, naysayers, and self-doubt. They may not end up on top, but sometimes survival through heart and dedication is a victory in itself.

Like a new T-shirt from American Aquarium reads, “Quit Bitchin’, Work Harder.” Barham has certainly been afforded many reasons to quit over the years, working harder through all of them to prevail. But it might have been the self-destructive things he quit that allowed him to become the revered songwriter he is today.

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American Aquarium’s ‘Lamentations’ produced by Shooter Jennings is out May 1st. It is now available for pre-order.

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