American Aquarium's 'Things Change' Is a Solid Critique on the Intersections of Life and Society
BJ Barham assembled a new line-up for American Aquarium's seventh album Things Change to reflect and share thoughts on changes in his personal life and the American landscape.
1 June 2018
American Aquarium leader BJ Barham, the only constant in this southern country quintet, released a solo album Rockingham in 2016, seemingly signaling a career shift. But, two years later, and amidst private personal changes and immense societal and cultural shifts in the American landscape, Barham put together a new line-up for American Aquarium and recorded Things Change over two weeks in December 2017 at 3CG Studios in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with producer John Fullbright. New members include Shane Boekher playing lead guitar, Joey Bybee on drums, Ben Hussey on bass, Adam Kurtz playing pedal steel and electric guitar, and Barham taking the lead on vocals and guitar. Fullbright additionally contributed to the album, playing piano, clarinet, mellotron, guitar, and singing some vocals.
Long a proponent of independent musicianship, Barham teamed with record label New West Records for this new album, and put together the new band line-up and a new support team for its recording and promotion. These attributes might seem to overshadow the album's links to Barham's musicianship and the musical style of previous American Aquarium albums, but the combination serves only the marketing and support for the album and its determined and strong writing and performing. Barham's past and the new line-up carry the independent attitude and American Aquarium's style with ease on Things Change, despite things changing (excuse the pun).
Many of the songs on Things Change lament the reality confronted by the title, but equally confirm the influence and growth spurred by that occurrence. Barham pulls absolutely no punches either and opens the album with the dismay he felt in the wake of the November 2016 Presidential election results. "The World Is on Fire" is a strong opener: Barham's lyrics confrontational and challenging while the music compliments his dismay turned to determination. It sets the entire album up for pessimism overcome by optimism, looking backward while searching for solutions and survival.
The tracks across Things Change generally follow this lyrical structure, with variances in performances and enjoyable shifts in tone and instrumentation. Tracks like "Crooked+Straight" and "Tough Folks" highlight Barham's growing up, his family's blue-collar and religious background, and an attitude linked to an American character self-motivated toward independent success. Both tracks add nicely on the sentiments expressed in the opener "The World Is on Fire", with lyrics focused on Barham's own past struggles and his father's advice toward success.
Barham's shifting tone and attitude from pessimism to optimism across Things Change is completed best through the striking instrumentation that compliments his voice. Rapid pace and lead guitar in many tracks offsets the lyrical stories and laments in Barham's voice and the stories he weaves. Consequently, American Aquarium's new line-up replacing the old band is addressed directly on "When We Were Young Men", with Barham softly singing about the experiences of his youth and the band across a sparse instrumentation compared to the loud, edgy, rockers that drive the album immediately. There's multiple references to Tom Petty and his music that illustrates the band's links and the influence of the disbanding on this album, alongside the death of an influential musician prior to its recording.
Mid-album track "One Day at a Time" and closer "'Til the Final Curtain Calls" both carry the immensity of Barham's personal struggles and document the changes he has faced as an adult and musician. He talks about the power of writing and expression through music, connecting to his confidence and renewal in recent years. The title track addresses the realities confronted by all ten songs on Things Change, focusing it upon the influence of love and a partner, in this case Barham's wife. This is an element hinted at in lyrics of preceding and following tracks like "I Gave Up Drinking (Before She Gave Up on Me)": that personal changes can be dramatic, from solitude, too much drinking, to marriage, and pending fatherhood (or parenthood). Still, he admits his own faults and shortcomings.
The instrumentation of the title track continues stylistically into "Work Conquers All", about searching for work in Oklahoma. Overall, the tracks with far more instrumental sections express the strength of the album, while Barham's lyrics are strong and captivating, the guitar often steals the attention when it is loosened for segues and solo opportunities. There's a sense of community and history in the opening tracks, as though sacrifice by ancestors has been lost despite gains those folks gave us. Worthwhile expressions, but it's hard to imagine the community Barham admits he came from and the environment where the album was recorded admitting these dimensions or sharing his reactions. But, maybe. There's the pessimism turned to optimism.
Penultimate track "Shadows of You" contains the last lamentation about mistakes and loss, pessimism about someone that has left, before turning toward finding solace and solution in looking ahead: optimism. Altogether, Things Change by American Aquarium is a quick-paced album from BJ Barham and a new line-up, with enjoyable and thoughtful lyrics and excellent music. Things Change is a solid critique on the intersections of life and society, personal concerns and development alongside shifts in perception and reactions to the world that takes shapes around us.