New West Records
Things Change is the first American Aquarium album since singer-songwriter BJ Barham started the band over with a whole new cast of characters, but it feels more like the continuation of a story than the start of a brand new one. The new crew, including Shane Boeker on lead guitar, Adam Kurtz on pedal steel, bassist Ben Hussey, and drummer Joey Bybee, brings to bear a solid brand of roots rock unlikely to disorient anybody who’s been following the band for the last dozen years.
But while Barham still pens tunes that marry a poetic perspective with a proletarian point of view like a Southern Springsteen (or at least a North Carolinian Patterson Hood), he moves into another lyrical level this time around. Part of it is his edging towards middle age and his newly minted family-man status; much of it is clearly his reaction to the sociopolitical morass in which our country is currently immersed. Things Change is the sound of someone struggling to come to terms with the world around him and his place in it. Despite what all those coming-of-age tales would have you believe, it’s a feat that becomes more complicated the older you get, and these songs show Barham to be completely cognizant of that fact.
Barham puts it pretty plainly from the outset with opening track “The World is on Fire,” singing, “This ain’t the country my grandfather fought for, but I still see the hate he fought against” and soon adding, “I’ve got a baby girl coming in the spring, and I worry about the world she’s coming into.” It’s a corner a lot of people feel themselves being painted into these days, and it helps to have somebody giving voice to it with equal parts compassion, commiseration, and conviction. The song ends with the vow, “We must go boldly into the darkness and be the light,” acknowledging the hard road ahead but not backing away from it either.
That feeling holds true throughout the record, especially on working people’s anthems like straight-up rocker “Tough Folks” and country-tinged “Work Conquers All.” And when American Aquarium gets its honky-tonk on with an old-school elbow-bender’s tune like “I Gave Up the Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me),” it serves as a reminder that amid all the sober reckoning, they can still come off like a good old mud-on-your-boots alt-country band whenever they have a mind to.