Album Discussion: American Aquarium – ‘Chicamacomico’

Chicamacomico

If there’s any outfit that can claim the title of the road-weary, all-American, tried-and-true band, it’s American Aquarium.

And you know, there’s a sense of irony in that – an outfit that, at least in name, has been around for 17 years now but has ostensibly been built solely around lead singer BJ Barham. If anything, it’s why I’ve come to understand my own weird relationship with their music. I had always considered their early albums a bit too brash and rough-around-the-edges for their own good, only to now understand the time and place they were coming from – the young, dumb, stupid kids who needed to get a lot of out of their systems, come hell or high water. Hell, in hindsight, a title like Burn. Flicker. Die was almost too on the nose.

And from there … well, it’s tricky. They got more contemplative with 2015’s Wolves but not necessarily more mature, continuously on the losing side of 25, with the only difference from before coming in the newfound self-awareness of what that hard living could do to a person. It was intentionally messy and scattershot to sift through newfound emotions and probably wasn’t the best starting point for me with this band, looking back now. But I got the appeal quickly afterward … even if it took an unexpected solo side project from Barham in 2016 and a complete band rebrand ahead of 2018’s Things Change to really click. What I’m trying to say is, this is a band that’s lived the songs they’ve written – and if we’re being honest, I can just go ahead and drop “band” for “Barham” there – but it’s also one where you can trace the natural progression from album to album, unintentional or otherwise.

Yet, coming off a slow-burn pandemic project in 2020’s Lamentations – which ended up being my favorite album of that year and, to me, the band’s best project to date – I did have my expectations and hopes for what would come next. Barham is at a point now where he’s maturing into the family man leaving his wilder days behind him, and those old sad songs of his are starting to feel more character-driven than ones directly pulled from experience. And I mean that in a good way, considering that the lead single ahead of this project wasn’t a sad song, but rather an upbeat ode to the joys of music that made for one of the band’s best songs to date. But it also begs the question of what that can mean for a band and singer moving forward that’s always operated at its best within the mire.

With Chicamacomico in mind, then, it’s a expected next step that can nevertheless throw listeners for a loop who only heard “All I Needed” or “Wildfire” ahead of this album’s release, because what this album sounds like is not just another step toward maturation, but a case of being settled within a more comfortable framework – for Barham as a husband, father, writer, or otherwise; I admit it even took some repeated listens to turn an initial slight disappointment for me into an understanding of what was trying to be achieved here. And while I don’t think this album captures the same white-hot intensity that’s always come through on their saddest and angriest past work, it is an album I’m happy to hear Barham make, even if there are a few elements holding me back from calling this among their absolute best.

Granted, while I’d say the biggest shift comes through in overall songwriting focus, I will say it’s the subtle shift in instrumentation and production that provides the easiest starting point for this discussion. After all, this isn’t another hazy, Shooter Jennings-produced effort to soak in its atmosphere; the bulk of the comparisons have actually pointed toward Barham’s 2016 solo project, Rockingham, if only because of producer Brad Cook’s involvement on that project as well as this one. And while I do, at a glance, understand why the comparisons are being made – two relatively stripped-back projects that look more inward than anything else – I’m not sure I’d go much further than that. Rockingham was another project to yearn with youthful desperation either over past mistakes made or characters swept up in hopeless decisions – and often perpetuated by their own vices.

With Chicamacomico, the easiest comparison point I’ve been able to make is to James McMurtry’s latest work. These are characters simply caught at an older age facing both inevitable and unexpected yet heartbreaking problems caused by circumstances largely out of their own hands, where they’re not old enough to be lost to the natural passage of time but may feel like they are anyway. It’s why I can understand why this album feels oddly sedate even in spite of that. There’s nothing flashy or self-destructive about these characters or how they ended up the way they did. On the opening title track, where a couple loses faith in one another after facing a miscarriage, it’s instead just … unfair yet unfortunately relatable.

Indeed, even within that role of the settled family man, Barham can either dig at other issues facing now grown-up characters or turn inward to be thankful for his own fortune. That also means that, in a weird way, this is a project built upon lighter stakes for this band, where the album will mostly trade between acoustic, singer-songwriter-inspired material and … well, little else. And even then, there’s moments to appreciate: the slight shuffling melodic groove carrying “Just Close Enough”; the ragged yet lived-in burnished flair of “Built to Last”; the campfire, folk-like rollick of “Wildfire”; or especially the blast of euphoria that comes through in the closer, “All I Needed,” which is a bit of a sonic outlier but actually makes sense to include on a project more self-assured that carries at least a slight underbelly of optimism at its core.

But I’ll also be honest and say that there is a difference between operating on lighter stakes and being completely lightweight, because a track like “Little Things” feels really saccharine coming from this band, especially with that clunky groove and especially when the similar-themed “Built to Last” later on handles everything better with a lot more lived-in sincerity. And even for a project that barely runs a little over a half an hour, it can start to blend together pretty quickly by its end – the sort of acoustic-based singer-songwriter material that’s tastefully presented but also feels less distinct coming from a band that’s proved they can handle adding a bit more meat without sacrificing a lighter core.

Like with Lamentations, though, there’s certainly a clear difference between the tracks that feel more personal to Barham’s experience and those that feel more clearly character-driven. Barham is the sort of empathetic writer who can understand when he’s escaped his own demons, which is why he speaks for those that didn’t. It’s why the title track is such a heartbreaking opener, because while Barham’s character plans a road trip to try and salvage what’s left of a strained relationship over the loss of a child, the subtle implication he’s aware of is that it’s all in vain, and that his partner really may be too far gone to turn back; Barham will cut to the bone like that without warning. And I love how that duality circles back around on “Just Close Enough,” where the natural pressure of everyday life and work has put a strain on a couple that just can’t seem to find the time to communicate with one another any longer, and where a female backing vocalist will show up alongside Barham to note that distance.

Indeed, it’s that natural loss of one’s self that characterizes this album, and not just in the relationship tracks either. I think anyone who’s lost a loved one – especially in recent years – will understand the lost hopelessness and void left by the passing of a loved one, especially one who acted more as a parental unit or mentor figure, on “The First Year,” not just in the initial aftermath but knowing full well after that first year that things are now forever changed, and that it may be impossible to ever know how to truly move on.

With that said, I noted earlier that this album can tend to run together sonically, and I will say that, outside of the deeper character framing and storytelling of the title track and “The First Year,” this album can also tend to operate solely within that relationship-based lens and repeat itself – again, especially in the second half, even if I do like the strikingly older perspective of “The Hardest Thing” that sees Barham take on the role of the old man not ready to give up quite yet. If anything, it’s why “All I Needed” really pulls the album back up for me, an isolated moment that nevertheless anchors the album as a connective point, where despite our own personal hardships and struggles, we can all find value in the right song at the right time as a form of salvation. It’s the sort of “song about a song” I’ve heard plenty of times before, but rarely with this much lived-in detail or anthemic heart; I can’t stress enough how much I love its placement here.

And I think it’s what gives the album even the slightest bit of hope, perhaps an unexpected pivot for a band that’s lived by the mantra of “sad songs make me happy,” but great to see anyway, even if it’s all sometimes a little too settled for its own good. All in all, though, it’s still a great listen, if only because Barham can still write a master of a sad song and knows how to rein it all in a bit better these days – not only keeping headstrong despite hitting rock bottom himself, but charging forward with a tempered outlook that extends beyond him these days. It may not burn as stridently as that past work, but that isn’t really required to speak for the downtrodden these days.

(8/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “All I Needed,” “Chicamacomico,” “Just Close Enough,” “The First Year,” “Wildfire”
  • Least favorite track: “Little Things”

Buy or stream the album.

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