American Aquarium

New West Records, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Jason Isbell is a Twitter god.

This observation is relevant mostly because in my ignorance, I had never heard of American Aquarium until Mr. Isbell, a master of both songwriting and the sort of sharply-drawn quips that fuel the best Twitter conversations, praised their latest album Lamentations. Minutes later I discovered that he had produced the group’s critically acclaimed 2012 album Burn.Flicker.Die., whose success had reinvigorated a band on the verge of calling it quits. And minutes after that this album was in my shopping cart.

Isbell is also a generous friend; he doesn’t play a note on Lamentations, he was just offering his genuine admiration to his 382,000 followers. It’s not hard to see why; American Aquarium frontman and songwriter BJ Barham is from the same school of songwriting: American roots music grounded in the South that’s unflinchingly honest and direct, possessed of a hard-earned wisdom, a sly sense of humor and an overriding sense of purpose. Any list of musical antecedents would necessarily include Whiskeytown, Drive-By Truckers, Isbell himself, and more than a little Springsteen.

On Lamentations, Barham’s songs are brought to life by the ace band of Shane Boeker (guitars), Rhett Huffman (keys), Neil Jones (steel), Ryan Van Fleet (drums), and Alden Hedges (bass), with their superb work burnished to an earthy shine by producer Shooter Jennings. All dedicate themselves to these songs with a near-religious fervor, playing, and featuring, every note that needs to be played, and none that aren’t.

Opener “Me + Mine (Lamentations)” sets the tone with a stark, airy, urgent paean to shattered American dreams: “What are you supposed to do / When the God you’re praying to up and goes missing / And leaves a trial of unpaid bills / Broken homes and opioid addiction.” Dark and earnest, it’s also full of steely determination, and unafraid to go the extra mile, clocking in at an epic 6:58 after a soaring instrumental coda.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Second track “Before The Dogwood Blooms” promptly flips that script and delivers a tight 2:55 gem, a playful, appealing melody supporting an edgy take on a working man’s struggles. Regret again fills the rearview mirror on the haunting “Six Years Come September” framed in a spacious, propulsive arrangement that inevitably reminds of “I’m On Fire.”

The bright chords and upbeat rhythm of “Starts With You” suggests lighter fare even as Barham’s playfully rendered lyrics cut deeper and deeper: “Most folks I know don’t have a problem / Reaching out when they’re in trouble / But I’m the kind of guy that hits rock bottom / Laughs and asks you for a shovel.” The brawny, Mellencamp-style heartland rock that shows up here finds an even stronger echo later on in the jaunty “The Luckier You Get,” whose vocals-and-drums breakdowns offer a virtual “Jack And Diane” homage.

Barham further grounds his songs in his roots with numbers like “Brightleaf + Burley”—an unstinting look at the lasting damage tobacco farming did to the South—but saves his best lines for the sharply drawn anthem “A Better South.” “Down here we’re still fighting for all the wrong reasons / Old men still defend these monuments to treason,” he sings, conveying both pride and shame, before reaching this conclusion: “I’m sick and tired of listening to Daddy’s generation / The byproduct of war and segregation / Still thinking they can tell us what to do / Who can live where and who can love who / They say sing your songs boy and shut your mouth / But I believe in a better South.”

Interspersed with the heavier tunes on this well-paced album, Barham also delivers a pair of gorgeous classic-country ballads in “The Day I Learned To Lie To You” and “How Wicked I Was,” both drenched in regret and mournful piano and slide. Gospel-inflected set-closer “The Long Haul” raises the roof with a stately anthem to commitment and determination. “You see the hardest part of getting sober / Is learning that a drinkin’ buddy ain’t the same thing as a friend / Just like the hardest part of starting over / Is admitting to yourself that something has come to an end.”

Lamentations feels like a sort of culmination, a manifesto taking on everything that’s gone wrong in America these last few years with a determined eye and plain-spoken honesty. It’s not hard to see why Isbell gave this one a plug; it’s clearly the work of a musical brother in arms, possessed of all the gifts and talent required to live up to that comparison.

Rating: A-

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