“What are you supposed to do when the God you're prayin' to up and goes missin?” That’s the central question American Aquarium’s BJ Barham finds himself asking in the opening song on the band’s new record, Lamentations, which came out on May 1st. Recorded in late 2019, the album feels prescient: the band’s lead singer, BJ Barham, addresses political division, the collapse of the American middle class, broken political promises, and racial disparities in the rural south. The songs on the new album can be undeniably dark: confronting the damage empty politics and unchecked industrial conquest has wreaked on the American South, as well as more personal pains that will hit closer to home for many listeners: divorce, alcoholism, and drug addiction. The album is certainly not a lighthearted record, but it is lead singer and songwriter BJ Barham’s attempt to address and expand the conversations we need to be having in this country. For Barham, who cites Bruce Springsteen as one of his greatest inspirations, songwriting goes beyond entertainment: it is a platform for delivering important messages that people need to hear. In the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic, which has undoubtedly exacerbated political tensions and piled further strain on Americans, Barham’s words are especially important. Take the eighth track on the album, “A Better South,” for example. In this song, Barham sings about the pride of being a Southerner, but also the sense of shame and guilt that comes along with it when the local government and a broader society has not adequately addressed racial injustices and helped all of its citizens move forward. Barham sings, “Down here we're still fighting for all the wrong reasons / Old men still defend these monuments to treason / To the right side of history, we're always late / Still arguing the difference between heritage and hate.” This song is perhaps my favorite on the album, and with its contemplative pedal steel melodies and Barham’s gentle vocals, it feels strangely soothing for such an ominous and significant song. In fact, “A Better South” is indicative of the album’s mood on the whole. While the subject matter is grave and certainly not cheerful, the song, and the album altogether, still exudes a sense of courage and tenacity. It feels imbued by the spirit of the blue-collar worker: resilient, and unremitting. Songs like “A Better South” are a searing indictment of the shortcomings of government and culture, but they still possess a sense of hope for the future, if good men and women stand up and choose to believe in a vision for “a better South.”
Barham, who was raised in a conservative Baptist family in rural North Carolina, decided to name the album Lamentations, after its opening song, “Me + Mine (Lamentations),” in which he discusses important issues in the American consciousness—across nearly seven minutes. The song is essentially the thesis for the album: an exposition of the subjects the band explores across the rest of the album. The song touches on opioid addiction, political alienation, and the forgotten needs of the rural American family. As a title, “Lamentations” has a double meaning—referring both to the encyclopedic definition: “expressions of sorrow, mourning, or regret;” “a crying out in grief”—as well as a biblical resonance: the Book of Lamentations is a collection of poems attributed to the voice of Jeremiah, in which Jeremiah questions why God would turn his back on Jerusalem and its people and allow the city to fall to Babylon. As Barham told Rolling Stone, The Book of Lamentations is about “a man reaching his breaking point.” Barham continues, “I wanted to start writing about all the things that break us as human beings, whether it be politics, whether it be fiscal responsibility, whether it be addiction, whether it be finding love, love lost, a marriage, children.” Indeed, this concern for the plight of the everyday person permeates the album. It feels like Barham’s songs are designed to reach the soul of the listener and implore him to grapple with the questions he puts forth on his songs.
While a sense of “breaking point” and tribulation underscores most of the album, the record can be divided into songs that speak to society on more general terms, and songs that tell personal stories. The former include songs such as the debut “Me + Mine (Lamentations)” as well as “A Better South” and “The Luckier You Get.” The latter includes most of the rest of the album: songs such as “The Long Haul,” “Six Years Come September,” and “The Day I Learned To Lie To You.”
The album, which was executively produced by Shooter Jennings, is finely crafted and does not have any areas of conspicuous weakness. Barham’s vocals serve as the focal point of each song, but at every turn the instrumentation and production supports Barham’s lead. Take “Brightleaf + Burley” for example. The song begins with country instrumentation: soft electric and acoustic guitar, steady drums, and pedal steel. However, by the second half of the song, the instrumentation has evolved into a more complex, experimental and self-conscious form. Lush piano keys, counterpoint on Hammond B3, and heavily reverberated and modulated keys and guitar pull the song into the psychedelic realm: you get the sense that you’re listening to one of the Grateful Dead’s prolonged intros or transitions. Another conspicuous moment of production occurs on American Aquarium’s “The Luckier You Get,” a tribute to blue collar, small-town work ethic. Aside from being one of the finest songs on the album, the song includes room reverb on the vocals and ambience and applause from a small room, giving the listener the sense that the song is a live recording performed in a rural bar or tavern. With “Six Years Come September,” a song that tells the story of a man who struggled with alcoholism and lost his family in a fatal car wreck, Jennings and American Aquarium provide one of the best soundscapes for Barham’s vocals. The story is semi-autobiographical—as Barham himself celebrates six years sober this year—though it includes the dark parable of a drunk driving tragedy in which the protagonist loses his family due to his own inability to put down the keys. Barham sings, “Foolish pride wouldn't let me give you the keys to the Oldsmobile / No way in hell I should've let myself get behind that wheel.” He soon moves into the chorus of the song, which takes on a new meaning with that final verse:
“These days things don't come easy
It's all I can do at most just to keep it between the lines
If I'd have done a better job of listenin'
The two of you would still be mine.”
Of course, the tragedy Braham sings about did not literally occur in his life, yet it serves as a powerful metaphor for the destruction that alcohol can inflict upon a relationship and a family, even without a car crash. “Six Years Come September” is a stand-out song on the album, and one of the finest American Aquarium songs to date. Other highlights on the album include the energetic country-rock crossover “Before the Dogwood Blooms,” which tells the story of a big rig driver on the move, and “The Long Haul,” a more personal song which Barham calls “the most optimistic song on the record.”
In the song, Barham sings about the criticism he has faced over the years as his career and personal life has evolved. It’s a remarkably honest song. In the first verse, Barham sings “They say you ain't been the same / Since you laid that bottle down / The songs they ain't got no soul / The band's done lost its sound.” Barham’s honesty about the stigma surrounding sobriety in the music industry is invigorating, especially given the fact that country musicians and rock stars are often expected to have a rough, hardened aesthetic. Moreover, the chorus in “The Long Haul” seems to connect to the underlying work ethic Barham sings about across the album and his previous catalogue of work. Barham sings, “I'm in it for the long haul / I'm here until the work's done / I ain't ever been the kind of guy / That's gonna cut and run.” Fittingly, the music video for “The Long Haul” shows Barham and the band assiduously working in the studio with Shooter Jennings on the album’s recording and production in Los Angeles.