Album Review: American Aquarium – “Lamentations”

American Aquarium

It is an unfortunate and unforeseen turn of events that one of the most anticipated albums of the year would be released during a worldwide pandemic that has put the entire music industry on its heels.

B.J. Barham, principal songwriter, frontman and the last original member of North Carolina’s American Aquarium,
has been tilling the thematic fields of adversity and resilience over the band’s 15-year existence. Historical hardships of beleaguered farmers at the mercy of king tobacco, disappearing jobs, and a flood of opioids used to chemically salve the indignity. Demons of doubt, drink and destruction have yielded a bitter fruit who’s popularity with fans proves a trope of country music. Misery loves company.

But for many (most?) of the fans, this has been misery by proxy. But no more.

We now find ourselves in strange, troubled, and tribal times. Politicians exploit our fears and confusion for personal agendas, the media baits us to rage click-and-shares in a culturally corrosive model that, while momentarily lucrative, undermines the very foundation of a free press. Then there’s big tech holding the puppet stings of both.

In all this ‘Lamentations’ is delivered. The quasi-title track opener “Me + Mine (Lamentations)” is a bleak recap of Barham’s aforementioned themes. Had times, harder people, and the hollow futility of looking to God or the American Dream for remedy.

There is a momentary ray of hope in the blue-collar romance of “Before the Dogwood Blooms” and the boot-stomping bootstrapped “The Luckier You Get” celebrating self-reliance and grit resulting in a better day.

But the clouds return on “Six Years Come September” with its pedal-steel yearn telling of a family tragedy. “The Day I Learned to Lie to You” is a piano-led lament of regret that marches toward a horn and organ swell like
a Crescent City funeral.

Unfortunately, all that populist goodwill get’s pissed away with one song. “A Better South,” the most politically charged track on the album takes aim at the very same people the other cuts other songs empathize with by rendering then into one-dimensional caricatures.

“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”

Where the earlier songs set up a context why a proud people being stripped of their dignity might reflexively cling to heritage as a weapon against cultural elimination, “A Better South” ditches all that goodwill and takes up an adolescent’s “okay boomer” argument.

“I’m sick and tired of listening to Daddy’s generation
The byproduct of war and segregation
Still thinking they can tell us of what to do
Who can live where and who can love who”

Sure it’s not easy to plumb the depths of humanity and tell it in a song, but Barham has shown on many occasions that he could be just the man to do it. Instead, he gets caught in what Patterson Hood coined as “The Southern Thing,” the existential friction of confronting the past and excusing or even justifying the darker elements by wholesale that an, in this case, surrender to the contemporary mobs that would be just fine erasing the Mason-Dixon blemish as longs the gourmet BBQ trucks stay open.


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