American Aquarium Chronicle the ‘Things That Break Us as Human Beings’ on New Album
In mid-March, while Americans were beginning to reckon with job losses and isolation spurred by coast-to-coast shelter-in-place orders, BJ Barham performed the American Aquarium songbook for shut-in fans via livestream, one album at a time. On the sixth night, he debuted the band’s new album, Lamentations (New West Records), released on Friday.
As Barham performed skeletal, acoustic versions of the songs, he kept reaching back to the title track, “Me + Mine (Lamentations),” to explain the album’s theme. In the song, inspired by the Old Testament’s Book of Lamentations, he relates the biblical Jeremiah’s sufferings to someone who has “woke up from the American dream,” and vows not to be fooled again by the man who swore to “return the jobs God himself cannot bring back.”
“He’s watching his entire country fall apart before his eyes, calling up to ask God for help, and nobody’s answering,” says Barham, whose first experience singing was in a Southern Baptist church in rural North Carolina. “I thought that was a really great parallel [to] 2020 America.”
If only the man who wrote those songs in 2019 could’ve known how deeply the sentiment would resonate in the new year.
Sequestered at home in North Carolina, Barham is articulate and endearingly self aware — recently he’s begun referring to his Instagram livestreams as “the sad sack revival.” But on Lamentations, humor is in short supply. Instead, he explores the lives of those who live on the margins, whose futures looked grim even before the COVID-19 pandemic sunk millions of jobs while killing tens of thousands of Americans.
“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.”
The long road to getting Lamentations done was enough to test Barham. The band was set to record in Memphis last September, but the producer who signed on got cold feet and left them hanging just two weeks before they were to begin. After Barham shook off a bout of self doubt, the band regrouped with Shooter Jennings, who was fresh off a Grammy win for Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You and Tanya Tucker’s comeback, While I’m Livin’.
The demos Barham sent Jennings resonated immediately, and instead of making a swampy Memphis record, they made a jangly, Heartbreakers-style album in Los Angeles. The band even stayed in storied Laurel Canyon, made famous by musicians like Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Jim Morrison, and members of the Byrds and Eagles.
On their first night in L.A., Jennings invited the band — Barham, guitarist Shane Boeker, bassist Alden Hedges, keyboardist Rhett Huffman, pedal steel player Neil Jones, and drummer Ryan Van Fleet—to his place to loosen up. Those who drink drank, and those who smoke smoked, as Jennings spun records from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, and Roxy Music. The music got more eclectic as the band started adding suggestions, and the experimental Laurel Canyon vibe carried over to the sessions.
From the bones of “Me + Mine (Lamentations),” Jennings pushed the band to explore their outer limits on an extended “Pink Floyd explosion,” as Barham puts it. “Brightleaf + Burley” shuffles from straightforward country into a psychedelic jam with backwards guitar and keys that echo the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.”
Despite the weighty themes, Lamentations isn’t a downer — even some of the bleakest moments are punctured by rays of hope. Barham’s vocals on the ballad “The Day I Learned to Lie to You” soar over honeyed brass and watery keys. Up-tempo rocker “Starts With You” comes with the sober admission, “Sad songs are the only thing that make me happy,” before celebrating a newfound perspective.
But the album’s biggest ovation comes with “The Luckier You Get,” a fist-pumping heartland arena anthem complete with handclaps. Inspired by the adage “work hard, get lucky,” which Barham committed to ink across his chest, the song could serve as a sequel to the pounding “Tough Folks” from 2018’s Things Change.
“We were trying to get four-part harmony, because there’s a lot of Alabama songs that have those really great chorus breakdowns in the middle of the song,” says Barham. “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.”
Sweet, Sunday-morning keys come in for the soulful closer, “The Long Haul,” a parting message of hope, dedication and perseverance.
“No matter what we’re tested with as humans, no matter what adversity gets presented to us, we have a choice,” says Barham. “Ultimately, we get to make the decision on whether or not we get back up and fight.”
In the face of adulthood’s greatest traumas — those Barham sings about, and those we’re all living through with the coronavirus — he won’t back down, to quote one of Lamentations’ most significant musical touchstones.
“It’s funny how these silver linings show themselves,” he says. “And if you’re willing to pull at that thread a little bit, it can work out even better. Because we could’ve never made the record that we made with Shooter in Memphis. It wasn’t possible. Shooter was the seventh member of the band.”