MAXXMUSIC, Neighborhood Theatre at Neighborhood Theatre
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Americana / Folk / Country
Lamentations - “Country music was the voice of thepeople. It wasn’t always the prettiest voice, but it was an honest voice,” saysAmerican Aquarium founder and frontman BJ Barham. “I think that’s where countrymusic has lost its way.” He pauses, then adds, North Carolina accent thick andvoice steady: “I operate in the dark shadows of what we don’t want to talkabout in the South.”
These days, those shadows are tall andwide, making it hard to recognize a neighbor, family––even yourself. OnAmerican Aquarium’s new album Lamentations, Barham shines light on darkAmerican corners with heartbreaking conversations, long looks in the mirror,and empathetic questions, all through songwriting that is clear withoutsacrificing its poetry, and direct without losing its humanity. “As asongwriter, my number one job is to observe and then translate what I observeinto a song, a story, a lesson,” Barham says. “I’d be doing myself and thelistener a huge disservice if I didn’t talk about the things I see, which is acountry, divided.”
As much as Barham appreciates anindignant protest song or one-sided anthem, he isn’t writing them. Instead, on Lamentationshe’s making the political personal, reaching out to humanize folks withopposing viewpoints, and offering dignity instead of demonizing. The result isthe strongest writing of Barham’s already stout career. “I’m still very muchstanding up for what I believe in––I don’t think anyone can question what sideof the aisle I stand on,” he says. “But hopefully people listen and at leasttry to understand why their Sunday School teacher wears a Trump hat.”
Barham has built a fiercely devotedfanbase hundreds of thousands strong, fortified with 15 years of sold-outAmerican Aquarium shows across the country and Europe. The band’s 2018 release ThingsChange strode confidently into that distinct territory where rock-and-rolland politics meet, prompting Rolling Stone to announce Barham “earnsevery bit of his Southern Springsteen cred.” In 2019, the American Aquariumlineup also shifted again: Shane Boeker remains on guitar, and bassist AldenHedges, keys player Rhett Huffman, pedal steel ace Neil Jones, and drummer RyanVan Fleet joined the group.
A beloved live band known forconsistently playing at least 200-250 dates a year, American Aquarium chose tobe more selective in 2019, winnowing the schedule to 92 shows. For Barham, soberfor six yearsnow, is a dad to a toddlerand still happily married, the adjustment was a must. “We’re learning how tobalance being in our mid-30s and being rock-and-rollers,” he says. “Being homewas the most rewarding experience. It allowed me to be creative and write aboutthings that really matter.”
Lamentations reflects that elevated focus. Barham,who is no longer religious but was raised Southern Baptist, wrote down the word“lamentations” in 2018, and knew it’d be his next album title before he’dwritten a single song for the record. He felt an anchoring connection to theword itself––defined as “the passionate expression of grief or sorrow”––butalso to the Old Testament book in the Bible. “Lamentations is one of the few books in the Bible where there’sthis doubt of God––this guy, crying out to the heavens, like, Why? If youlove us so much, why did you let Jerusalem fall to Babylon?” Barham says.“I saw a direct correlation between that and a Southern man today who voted forTrump. I wanted to write about a broken America and all the things that lead ahuman being to doubting something. Every song on this record touches onsomething a little different.”
Album opener “Me and Mine(Lamentations)” is brooding and stormy, plaintive acoustic guitar undergirdingBarham’s weathered vocals. Searching, frustrated, and sad, the song was writtenfrom the perspective of a conservative Southern voter who feels unseen,unheard, and short on hope. The broader message is immersive and immediate:Settle in and listen closely. Times are hard, and this record is going to talkabout it. Barham, who doesn’t agree with the song’s protagonist politically,imbues him with respect and sympathetic fatigue. “There are so many people whocome out nowadays and say, If you voted this way, you’re a racist. You’re amisogynist. You’re a nationalist,” he says. “But that was my teacher, mylibrarian, my uncle. I know they aren’t bigots. So instead of saying, You’rea bad person because you did this, I want to know why you did this. I want totalk to you about this.”
Upbeat guitar rocker “Dogwood”follows, with a tragic story wrapped up in singalong lines. Barham points tothe song and “Luckier You Get,” with its Springsteen vibes and an ear-wormchorus, as two of the album’s more lighthearted moments. “Bright Leaf” isanother musical moment ready for a crowd, offering a clear-eyed look at thetobacco farms and industry of Barham’s home through sharp lyrics that thousandswill shout-sing right back at him.
Featuring wry pedal steel and a shufflingback beat, “Better South” is an alternative anthem, written and sung by anative Southerner who believes in change. Line after line, “Starts with You”shows off Barham’s self-deprecating wit: “They say you’re only as sick as yoursecrets / If that’s the truth then, friend, I’m dying / Spent a lifetimesalvaging shipwrecks, / Falling so long I thought I was flying.”
Throughout the record, the only victimof Barham’s harsh tongue is himself. Heartbreaking “How Wicked I Was” pleadsfor narrative omissions when it comes to explaining the past to his littlegirl. Album highlight “Learned to Lie” cuts just as deep: Barham delivers agut-wrenching confession over lonely piano. Raw and intimate, its look at howwe hurt the ones we love evokes the unblinking candor of 60s and 70s LorettaLynn––that extreme honesty Barham first valued in country music, and nowmisses. “That was one of the first songs I played for the boys in the band, andthey were like, ‘Are you sure you want to record that?’” Barham says. “It’s ahard song to talk about. It’s a heavy song. For better or worse, I’m going tobe real with you live. I’m probably going to make you uncomfortable. And that Ithink that’s a beautiful part of rock-and-roll.”
“Six Years Come September” is another heartbreaker,masquerading at first as a familiar story before a sobering plot twist. “As asongwriter, that’s the best feeling in the world––ruining someone with lyricsand a well-executed story,” Barham says. He points to album closer “Long Haul”as a frontrunner for his own favorite track. Perhaps the closest the recordcomes to jubilation, “Long Haul” rolls through three steadfast commitmentsBarham holds true and dear.
Ultimately, Lamentations is athrilling portrait of an artist and his band reaching new levels of skill,consciousness, and potential after 20 years in the trenches. Unruly andsincere, Barham emerges as an important American voice––and an unlikelypeacemaker. “I’ve had to work really hard to carry water as a songwriter,” hesays. “It feels really good to be in my mid-30s, writing songs that I thinkmatter. I think when you listen to this record, something is going to change inyou. You’re going to feel something. That’s the most important part ofsongwriting: making someone feel.