REVIEW: American Aquarium – ‘Things Change’

The American Aquarium story really is a fascinating one, and the new album is aptly titled. Well regarded for their gravelly style of Americana, things took a turn for the worst for front man BJ Barham last year, when every single one of his band members took the decision to walk away. It does beg the question whether BJ considered going solo, but over the last 12 years BJ has played with 26 different members of American Aquarium, so the latest saga wasn’t going to phase him and his no-shits-given attitude. Assembling a new band from scratch, BJ and his new guys started work on the new project, ‘Things Change’, resulting in a 10-track album possessing great quality and song writing prowess.

BJ has never been one to keep his cards close to his chest, and the politically-charged opener ‘The World Is On Fire’ leaves little to the imagination. There’s no playing it safe here, he’s straight in there with a good old protest song – “when did the land of the free become the home of the afraid? Afraid of the world, afraid of the truth, afraid of each other… this ain’t the country my grandfather fought for”. It’s the kind of honesty that the group’s loyal followers have come to know and love, despite its polarising nature.

Quite a heavy start to the album, particularly when followed by the rock-infused, high-energy ‘Crooked + Straight’, but delve deeper into the album and you’ll come across some real throwback moments with wonderful traditional instrumentation and intricately crafted storytelling. If you’re looking for a masterclass in the use of pedal steel guitar, ‘When We Were Younger Men’ has it all. In fact, the pedal steel forms the main hook in the song that you won’t be able to get out of your head. It’s beautifully written too; a very open reflection on days and good times gone by with previous band members, hoping that “every now and then, you’ll look back fondly on the days when we were younger men”. A song of the year contender without a doubt.

‘One Day At A Time’ maintains the standard too. This acoustic guitar-driven melody allows BJ’s raw, hearty vocal to take the spotlight, gradually building to the introduction of pedal steel once again towards the end. The vocal delivery is so passionate and packed with emotion, looking back on his personal and professional struggles as a musician whilst looking ahead with optimism and motivation. It’s part of the album’s second half which is incredibly ‘country’, particularly with the up-tempo tune ‘Work Conquers All’, which is tailor-made for the honky tonks! Definitely the brightest point on the album, it’s an autobiographical tale of a musician packing up his bags to move to Oklahoma (“the land where work conquers all”). Toe-tapping classic country music at its very best.

‘I Gave Up The Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)’ is another example of BJ Barham’s imaginite, out-of-the-box lyrical style, with the juxtaposition of an alcohol problem combined with a quirky, rather uplifting melody. But don’t expect the fun to last too long… this is an American Aquarium album after all. The album draws to a close with the melancholic ‘Shadows Of You’, followed by the soulful ‘Til The Final Curtain Falls’, a stunning ending about the importance of loyalty with that special someone.

‘Things Change’ is another top-drawer addition to American Aquarium’s stellar back catalogue. BJ Barham’s level of song writing is good enough to compete with the very best in country/Americana, and the production throughout is slick and well balanced, giving BJ’s unique vocal the opportunity to make a deep impact. This will no doubt be considered for many ‘album of the year’ lists – it certainly will be for us.

Dan Wharton
@LifeInASong_Dan