American Aquarium

Losing Side Records / Thirty Tigers, 2022

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


“It’s been the kind of year that damn near broke us in two”
– “Chicamacomico” by BJ Barham

The day after election day 2016, a friend made this observation about the suddenly clouded future: “Yeah—but the art is gonna be great.” I had a similar feeling at a certain point in summer 2020—as in, this year is incredibly hard, but there’s something about the experience of loss and the necessity of resilience that challenges us to continue evolving.

Loss and resilience—along with the possibility of growth and redemption—are pretty much American Aquarium singer/songwriter/bandleader BJ Barham’s wheelhouse, as we are reminded once again on the group’s ninth studio album Chicamacomico. Maybe it’s the times, or maybe it’s the time of life Barham is living through, or maybe it’s that he’s kept the same lineup behind him for two albums in a row (a notable accomplishment given AA’s revolving-door history), but this feels like the most mature, thoughtful, and accomplished American Aquarium album yet. As on 2020’s superb Lamentations, Barham’s heartfelt songs are again burnished into rough-hewn gems by Shane Boeker (guitars), Rhett Huffman (keys), Neil Jones (pedal steel), Ryan Van Fleet (drums), and Alden Hedges (bass), a tight combo that plays like a roots-rock orchestra, channeling The Band on one tune, Jason Isbell on another, and Wilco on a third, evolving from arrangement to arrangement with the moods of the songs.

The stately, riveting opening title track sets the pace, channeling all the loneliness and alienation of lockdown into the tale of a couple who’ve suffered a miscarriage. When Barham sings the gut-wrenching line “I never knew hard until I took apart that room that never got used” it’s expressing grief of an intensity and magnitude that’s difficult to grasp, the death of every dream you once held for the future of a child. It also feels like an echo of what much of 2020 felt like for so many—that scale of loss, repeated and multiplied by the millions all feeling it together.

As devastating as “Chicamacomico” is, second track “Little Things” is its opposite in every respect, a lilting, moving, autobiographical celebration of the domestic bliss brought on by being forced off the road. “I’ve spent my whole life with one foot out the door,” he admits, “It finally took putting down what I was working on / To see what I was working for.” Barham loves Springsteen, that’s as obvious as the sun, but what this track makes clear is that he loves more than just the man’s iconic ’70s classics. This song is Barham’s “my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Book Of Dreams” and “Living Proof” wrapped into one, a pure and mature statement of reordered priorities: “I used to be a singer with a family back home / Now I’m just a father and a husband, who knows his way around a microphone.”

The country elements of the group’s sound come to the fore on the rippling, difficult “Just Close Enough,” a clear-eyed look at those moments in a relationship when “It’s like we’re speaking two different languages… Drowning in overtime, raising a couple kids / Ignoring our problems just like our parents did.” The theme of loss returns with “The First Year,” a sweet and powerful piece about Barham mourning his mother (“You left in such a hurry, I had so much left to say”) that demonstrates how holidays can function as both mileposts and triggers in the grieving process. It makes perfect sense that the next song (“Built To Last”) is a big-boned anthem celebrating the resilience of love, because after all "what is grief if not love, persevering?” (in the eloquent words of Jac Schaeffer, writer of WandaVision episode 8). By the time you get to the song’s final line, Barham has made the connection crystal clear: “These scars are just the stories of the storms we’ve made it through.” Yeah.

The incendiary love / story song “Wildfire” calls that initial romantic impulse “the simplest of desires” before turning formula into art by continuing the narrative past the infatuation stage all the way to the relationship’s fiery end, to which he applies this indelible coda: “And if there’s one thing I’ve learned / There’s a part of death that’s magic / Destroying something to make way for something else to grow.” Oof.

“All The Things We’ve Lost Along The Way” and “Waking Up The Echoes” offer two more compelling examinations of loss and our efforts to make sense of and heal from it. Then “The Hardest Thing” offers a character study that’s also a cautionary tale, speculating on how things might have turned out for Barham if he hadn’t gotten sober. Jones’ steel guitar accents add pathos as Barham’s alcoholic narrator sings that “Having to learn to live without you is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Closing out this tight, taut 32-minute album, “All I Needed” pumps up the volume for an anthem about the uplifting power of anthems, a fervent thank-you to a song with the ability to “Pull me back into the light.” It’s a rousing finale with a dozen quotable lines that I’ll leave unquoted here so that, like the narrator of the song, you too can experience “a spiritual change” from “a song I didn’t recognize.”

Chicamacomico—named for a historical landmark near the Outer Banks retreat where Barham isolated himself to write this album—is a finely crafted work of art that also manages to feel loose and organic under the watchful eye of producer Brad Cook. It’s an album that speaks to the moment we’re all inhabiting while keeping its focus unflinchingly personal, a masterful set of songs from a songwriter now fully dedicated to making music that matters, the kind that makes us all want to work harder at becoming that better version of ourselves hidden away inside our hearts.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2022 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Losing Side Records / Thirty Tigers, and is used for informational purposes only.