Originally formed in Raleigh, North Carolina, American Aquarium released their first album in 2006. They found critical acclaim with their fifth record Burn.Flicker.Die, produced by Jason Isbell, which was intended to be their swan song but ushered in a new wave of success. After releasing his solo album Rockingham in 2016, frontman BJ Barham announced early last year that the previous lineup had dissolved. Now, along with a new lineup, he and American Aquarium have returned with their latest album, the appropriately titled Things Change.
The record opens with The World Is On Fire, which combines bright, twangy guitars with shimmering keyboards and lovely harmonies. The sunny melody contrasts the downbeat lyrics as Barham sings about worrying about the world his daughter will grow up in and challenging the darker side of US society.
This song sets the tone for the rest of the album, which is littered with political references alongside themes of growing up, moving on, life on the road and the redemptive power of love. The rocky, driving Crooked+Straight is reminiscent of the Eagles, whilst the energised Tough Folks highlights the importance of persistence with its American heartland imagery. Both songs have an anthemic quality to them and I can see these being sung along to at full blast when the band plays them live.
Throughout the record the band mix in a variety of styles, from the folky, remorseful Things Change to the honky-tonk vibes of Work Conquers All, with its soaring chorus and sarcastic lyrics. It’s also littered with fantastic turns of phrase; Barham has a real way with words and is an excellent storytelling, particularly on I Gave Up The Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me), which mixes a jaunty, rollicking melody with darker lyrics and a funk-influenced bridge, and the small details of the yearning, melancholy Shadows Of You.
However, many of the standout moments on the record come in the slower numbers. The subdued When We Were Younger Men showcases the gravel and depth of Barham’s voice as he openly sings about the breakup of the band’s previous lineup, whilst the imagery (down to the van they drove and the Tom Petty songs on the radio) puts you in the scene. Meanwhile, One Day At A Time is a stripped-back ode to the power of love and music, which builds up the melody whilst exploring Barham’s struggles with the life of a touring musician.
The final song on the album is ‘Till The Final Curtain Falls, which for me sums up the record really well. The melody is laid-back and twangy as Barham sings about staying faithful, with allusions to life on tour and a lovely tone and quality to his voice. The delicate piano runs and fuzzy guitar outro add a sense of building to something and leave you wanting more when they come to an end.
Overall American Aquarium have produced an honest and refreshing album that would make a great soundtrack to summer days. It’s a great combination of country, blues, rock and folk, with strong songwriting and layered instrumentation, all brought together by Barham’s excellent voice. I really liked the rough-and-ready feel to it too, such as the sounds of setting up between Things Change and Work Conquers All. This is a great return to form for the band and I’m looking forward to seeing where they go from here.
Track list: 1. The World Is On Fire 2. Crooked + Straight 3. Tough Folks 4. When We Were Younger Men 5. One Day At A Time 6. Things Change 7. Work Conquers All 8. I Gave Up The Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me) 9. Shadows Of You 10. ‘Till The Final Curtain Falls Record label: New West Records Release date: 1st June 2018