American Aquarium Offer Most Brilliant Work to Date with Socially-Charged ‘Lamentations’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Anyone who complained that American Aquarium’s 2018 album Things Change was “too political,” should probably sit this new one out as well. Lamentations is BJ Barham’s strongest work yet lyrically, fighting against the stereotypes of Southern men clinging to the stars and bars and genuflecting to statues of Robert E. Lee. The result is also, easily American Aquarium’s most aggressively brilliant album yet; a clear-eyed look at history, the present and what it will take to change.

The agenda is set from the opening track “Me + Mine (Lamentations),” a powerful track about a region exploited by drug companies and presidential candidates (“a politician shows up promising that he’ll return the jobs that God himself could not bring back”) that begins with soft acoustic picking that ultimately builds to a wall of distorted guitar. 

Elsewhere, on “A Better South,” Barham attacks some of those Southern ghosts even more pointedly; “Down here they’re still fighting for all the wrong reasons/Old men still defend these monuments to treason/To the right side of history we’re always late/Still arguing the difference between heritage and hate.” It’s a remarkable line from a son of North Carolina who’s lived there for generations. Referencing a line he’s obviously heard time and time again, the refrain goes “They say sing your song boy, shut your mouth/But I believe in a better South”.

More than just a political album though Lamentations leaves plenty of room to tackle other topics. “The Day I Learned to Lie to You,” for example, is a self-deprecating love song that is almost heartbreakingly poetic, punctuated with a swamp organ that would make Leon Russell proud and one that goes out on an impressive Memphis horn section. His knack for sharp writing is just as precise when turning sights on himself; “I’m the kind of guy that hits rock bottom, laughs and then asks you for a shovel” he sings on the charming “Starts With You.” Barham also confronts his own sobriety on the closing track “Long Haul.”

The album title is more than a tacked on afterthought. It’s remarkably appropriate given the graves Branham and his crew have been digging up and the emotions that come with it. Lamentations is powerful record and one that he’s been working up to for the past 15 years.

Photo credit: Joshua Black Wilkins

 

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