BJ Barham, American Aquarium's founder, named the band's latest album Lamentations (1 May 2020; New West Records) in reference to personal sorrows, the book of the Bible and the death of the American Dream.
The themes of his songs, which have often been compared with Bruce Springsteen, deal with retrospective regret in its myriad forms and the difficulties faced by those at rock bottom. “I wanted to write a record about the things that break us as human beings,” Barham says. “Financial ruin, the loss of a significant other, loss of a child, addiction, vices, divorce — all of these things appear on the record. Each song represents a different way that someone can be tested in their faith. Not just in God, [but] faith in humanity, faith in yourself.”
Barham suggests that often new possibilities arrive in especially tough moments, as they did, for example, when the band’s producer dropped out at the last moment and Shooter Jennings stepped in. Jennings was an inspired choice because he started by taking the new band– guitarist Shane Boeker, keyboardist Rhett Huffman, bassist Alden Hedges, pedal steel player Neil Jones, and drummer Ryan Van Fleet – back to his place ‘to get wrecked’ and listen to some classic rock, country rock and acoustic folk, to get a feel for the way the album might develop. The team responded by suggesting new sounds such as the introduction of whirling pedal steel (on Before the Dogwood Blooms), latin drums (on Brightleaf + Burley) or the unexpected horns and saxophone (on The Day I Learned to Lie To You).
The album kicks off with the outstanding Me + Mine (Lamentations), which is dark but grand in scale. Barham’s previous writings suggest he is politically to the left but that never stops him challenging himself, seeking to understand and even showing respect for those who don’t share his view. ‘Neither the left or the right are going to fight for those in between…’ he sings to the backing of his Vintage 1950s Harmony Silvertone Hollowbody Archtop for the occasion (not his favorite acoustic guitar, a 1968 Reissue of a Gibson J-45 in cherry finish). Barham argues that people have been cheated and have had their dreams stolen from them: “And then a politician shows up, Promisin’ that he’ll return the jobs, That God himself could not bring back, Fool me once, shame on you, Fool me twice, shame on me, Yeah, that’s the day I gave up, On the American dream”. It’s tough, but the song’s coda is gloriously lush and makes you feel like you just want to stop whatever you are doing and listen attentively to whatever is to come.
And that patience is repaid by another outstanding cut, The Luckier You Get, to which it is easy to imagine a whole stadium of fans singing along. “The harder you work, the luckier you get” Barham sings, which is a sentiment that he lives by and which he has tattooed across his chest. Barham says of this hand-clapping anthem: “We were going for that late Eighties, early Nineties country, but if it was in an arena, like if Springsteen did it. I can’t wait to tour, because that’s going to be the one you start and have the crowd singing with you.”
The band show their chops and their diversity on songs like their driving rock number Starts With You; the poignant and political A Better South (“down here we’re still fighting for all the wrong reasons… on the right side of history, we’re always late”); the angst-ridden Six Years Come September (“since the day that you left me, six years since September, I’ve been cursed with this clarity”); and the reflective, gospel-tinged, album closer The Long Haul (“see the hardest part of getting sober, is learning a drinking buddy ain’t the same thing as a friend”).
The subject matter of Lamentations could easily have made you want to reach for your 9mm, but Barham’s lyrical skill and his belief that individuals can rise above the tough situations they find themselves in helps both inspire and define a way forward. “It’s funny how these silver linings show themselves…” Barham says. “and if you’re willing to pull at that thread a little bit, it can work out even better.”