Lamentations is both another insight into BJ Barham’s mind and past and a way to offer confidence for the future, even if it’s a bleak listen to get there. And though 2018’s Things Change signaled an overall bigger change for the band, Lamentations is another reinvention in and of itself, resulting in the band’s best album yet – and one of the best albums of the year.
It’s telling that, in the midst of record labels requesting happy music and mainstream country music shelling out one mindless, nihilistic drinking song after another to try and cheer up audiences, American Aquarium have decided to press on with their latest album release – and offer hope with something much more profound.
Which, yes, means that calling front man BJ Barham a relentless sad sack has become something of a cliché over the years – not unlike the one that follows performers like John Moreland and Gretchen Peters around. With Barham, though, that darkness comes with a rare persistence, enough to where the American Aquarium of today is much different than the one just mere years ago. Trouble found the band ahead of their newest album, too, when their scheduled record producer decided he and the band wouldn’t work well together. It’s not quite the complete band reformation that happened ahead of 2018’s Things Change, but it was another loss Barham eventually recovered from and turned into a positive.
Which leads to Lamentations, spearheaded by Shooter Jennings and reportedly about Barham’s view of modern southern culture. Paradoxically, it’s timely and untimely right now, though while several may miss the deeper message of Lamentations, it’s an album inspired by darkness to offer hope for what’s ahead – for Barham, his daughter and (hopefully) middle America. Barham himself calls it the band’s most accessible record, and while I don’t quite think that’s true, it is their best yet.
Even when the obvious criticism pointed to Jennings elongating a few tracks like the opener and “Long Haul” ahead of the album release, it wasn’t until my third listen through the title track that I even noticed it ran nearly seven minutes long. That, though, is more of a note on lyrics and themes than anything else, which splits itself between Barham’s past observations of himself as an alcoholic and his observations on southern America. And if I could take a moment to criticize other critics, the real failing of critical examinations of this album is treating them as separate thematic arcs. Because, yes – Barham isn’t mincing words on the opening title track, and it’s that bleak exploitation of drug companies and politicians on dead-end rural communities that drives good people to either commit criminal activities just to have money to survive or resort to dangerous coping mechanism to preserve their sanity.
Yet it’s also telling how “Six Years Come September,” “How Wicked I Was” and “The Day I Learned How To Lie To You” – all tracks stemming from an alcoholic’s perspective – aren’t told from Barham’s own point of view. If anything, he views himself as the lucky one, happy to have moved on from that past, but also self-aware enough to know he could have ended up like his characters on those aforementioned tracks.
And he knows others around him aren’t as lucky, either; hence why that venom spit toward the power structure that resists those fading tobacco farms as a replacement crop on “Brightleaf + Burley” is for the people around him as much as it is for him. The other noted criticism of this album is its bleak perspective, but it’s hard to have hope when even a good idea gets crushed to nothing, and it’s only from paying the heaviest prices on “Six Years Come September” that these characters get “cursed with clarity,” as Barham says on that track. And it’s hard not to get political when you’re caught in the throes of that situation (though in reality, the real “politics” come from anger at those profiting from exploiting the political machine itself, even if it’s another angle that’s been misconstrued by other critics).
But against Jennings’ production, the album is never meant to wallow in that bleakness. Barham can’t speak for his characters, but he’s certainly not going to give up. The production centers Barham’s magnetism, but there’s ramshackled warmth to the pickups on a track like “Before The Dogwood Blossoms,” where even though this trucker has his own illegal business on the side just to make ends meet, he’ll make it home to his lover somehow. That’s the beautiful part about Lamentations’ darkest moments: it challenges listeners to judge those characters, and for Barham there’s no harsher critic of himself than he, but maybe it’s also challenging them to find some admiration for those at least trying to buck the system, even if they’ll inevitably fail. There’s a real balance here, where even on the blunt “Better South,” Barham acknowledges that what he sees as hatred – idolization of Confederate leaders through monuments, that is – is what a past generation saw as heritage, and though he disagrees with it, he understands how the passage of time shapes a mindset, especially from a generational perspective. The bleaker moments are Barham’s story told through characters, but the ones that find him in the present day with a bit more confidence and hope are all his own perspective. There’s even a slight acknowledgment that his time, too, is gone (but it won’t stop him), and that when he prays for a better future, it’s more just hope for the next generation to find their own way.
Yet for as powerful as the pen is, you need a band and a producer to shade it all in. Like with recent Jennings-produced albums, the focus is on pushing the vocalist to the front and letting the mix settle, mostly with tinges of reverb and atmospherics. And yes, it’s fitting that an album like this sounds as spacious as it does, with the endings of tracks like the title track and “Long Haul” maybe feeling a bit gratuitous after a while, but not to where it detracts from the pure heaviness of the former track or the cathartic swell of the latter closing track. Subtlety is the key, like the crescendo that creeps up after that one particular line in “Six Years Come September” or the seedier percussion driving the shuffle and tension of “Brightleaf + Burley.” Truthfully, it’s an overall cutting sound I’ve missed in alt-country in quite some time, and even when the band opts for slight levity on “Starts With You” or “The Luckier You Get,” the guitars have a ton of raw firepower and heft; and Barham provides the lived-in growl needed to sell the material.
Barham himself says he never makes the same album twice. Like with his aforementioned statement on accessibility, I disagree; he’s constantly exploring the darkest corners of his mind to find some vestige of redemption, and it never sounds pretty. With that said, the pure scope of this album is what elevates it above other American Aquarium works – able to confront that past, offer needed criticism for the present and hopefully, because of it, provide a better sense of direction for the future. With every listen I try to find fault – even just a weaker track or moment – and can’t. The sad songs make me happy as well, and though the music industry will continue shoving songs from artists drinking themselves to death for fun at us, I know what’s actually going to resonate beyond that – not just after this current situation is over or even just until December, but for years to come as American Aquarium’s best work yet.
- Favorite tracks: “Six Years Come September,” “Brightleaf + Burley,” “How Wicked I Was,” “Me + Mine (Lamentations),” “Starts With You”
- Least favorite track: none