Still trying to find purpose after surviving the suicidal Flame.Flicker.Die., American Aquarium deliver a confused and confusing album.
If there are those who plan beyond suicide, their number does not include American Aquarium (AA). A small alt-country band that had settled in a place somewhere a bit rockier than the land of their great uncle Wilco and a tad more rural than Lucero, their cousin, they couldn’t have been much clearer about their thoughts on their future when they titled their previous album Burn. Flicker. Die.. The sounds, all histrionic yearning, and the lyrics, packed with pathos, made certain nobody missed the point. It was as clear an act of artistic self-immolation as possible, one that not only seemed to burn out all of the rot in the band but to also draw by light of this blaze the kind of commercial support and critical attention a lack of which had led to this suicide in the first place.
“Every day’s an uphill battle / staring down the barrel of the choices that I’ve made,” sings BJ Barham as their latest album Wolves begins. He's grateful for the chance to continue making music, certainly, but also bewildered. It's unclear as to what, exactly, he and his band mates should be doing with their newfound lease on life. If music is still an option it is the riskiest option by far, one that excludes the possibility of stability, home, family and even love, and only offers little more than a “three digit address” Barham will “use to impress lonely dark haired women”. The band members know this and fear it even as they still, inexplicably, love it, and it is exactly this ambivalence which makes for the theme of Wolves.
Episodes of regret abound as in “Losin’ Side of Twenty-Five”, when Barham is hit with the shame of his itinerant lifestyle, forced to hang his head in front of his parents, mumble out a lie about the kind of money he makes to curious friends or explain to an abandoned lover why he won’t be home this week. Other times, as in “Southern Sadness”, the pull of home is so strong that even to think of it means despair will suffuse the air right along with the smell of the Piedmont pines that mark home. Most powerful of all are images of his lover and reminders that this life spent on the road means that there’s no way to foster any kind of long-lasting relationship, that as long as this whole thing continues there will always be a rotating cast of one-night stands, missed birthdays and frustrated expectations. “This ain’t for the faint or weak of heart”, Barham warns early on; “this life will take its toll”.
These are all convincing sentiments -- repetition invests even the most insincere of thoughts with a kind of power -- but there’s a clear line running through the music that contradicts these displays of shame and sorrow. If there is, as Barham says in “Who Needs a Song”, no reason to continue on as a touring musician (“Who needs a song if I got you, babe? / We’re never gonna be the Rolling Stones…the only thing I need right now is home”) then why does he sound so resigned to choosing the domestic lifestyle? Why, when mourning that home is only useful for impressing hook-ups and when lamenting that he’s left his lover behind to “cry herself to sleep”, does he sound so excited, does the music sound so jubilant? “Rambling Ways” might read like a litany of complaints lodged against traveling and the attendant loneliness, but with its jaunty bassline (taken almost note-for-note from Wilco’s “I Hate it Here”), it sounds more like a celebration of this lifestyle than a love letter to a distant girlfriend. There are rare moments where the music and the sentiments match: “End Over End” is a slow acoustic ballad that occasionally injects a slight electric sound that perfectly emulates Barham’s growing sense of indignation and hurt; “Man I’m Supposed to Be” is as watery as a lament can be without turning risible. But they’re only exceptions meant to demonstrate by contrast how prevalent the rule is.
If only the music was as rich in sound as it is in theme. It’s not the tension between the sentiments and arrangements that makes for an unstable foundation -- there’s plenty of power to be found in contrast. The problem is that music born out of ambivalence about creating music is music that is suspicious of its own existence. AA's not lacking for talent: aside from “Losing Side of Twenty-Five” and “Who Needs A Song”, both of which sound like rhythm exercises, it's obvious every member plays an essential part on every song. This is about as deliberate a country album you're going to find. The problem is these members lack purpose and so have no reason to commit to this music emotionally. There’s something anemic in “Family Problems”, something wholly generic about “Wichita Falls”, nothing of any great worth in “Rambling Ways”. Only when the music picks up, as it does on “Old North State”, does it exhibit the same vitality that seemed to have vanished after Burn. Flicker. Die., and only on the eponymous “Wolves” does the album gain the kind of purpose it lacked.
“I wish these wolves would get their claws out of me” wails Burham on the title track, finally naming the true conflict that drives this album. It’s not that he’s torn between home, love and music but that he is sick of feeling an obligation to anything at all, be that music (suddenly Burn. Flicker. Die. seems even more desperate than before ) or the love of his life (whose very existence plagues his guilty conscience so that he feels hesitant to do anything he wants). If closer “Who Needs a Song” suggests that Burham’s leaving music for a lover, “Wolves” proves that this could only be a mistake just as any other choice Burham makes can only be a mistake: suddenly, the ambiguity and conflict that mark so much of this album and make it feel so dissolute find their apotheosis. Suddenly, there’s an explanation for all of the hypocrisy. Finally, the album has a real purpose and a power. Too little too late, maybe, but it's a rare enough moment of honesty that it does something to redeem everything that leads to the moment.