There may be no more aptly titled album released in 2018 than American Aquarium’s Things Change. In the three years since the Raleigh band’s last album, Wolves, the band’s singer/songwriter/guitarist BJ Barham has been through quite a few of those.
“The last few years have been a touch tumultuous for me and the band,” Barham says, with some understatement. “Since the last time we were in the studio to make a record in the summer of 2014, I’ve gotten sober, I’ve gotten married, I’ve had an entire band quit, I’ve had an entire band join, we had a presidential election that split our country in half, and I welcomed my first kid into the world a couple of months ago. So needless to say, the well was pretty deep.”
The well was damn-near bottomless. Musically, the 10 songs on Things Change continue the potent blend of Drive-By Truckers-style Southern rock and country twang that American Aquarium has specialized in since forming in the mid-2000s. Lyrically, however, Barham has laid down some of the most merciless autobiographical lyrics ever put on wax. Throughout the album, he tears into his own failings and takes a few songs to cast a withering gaze on America’s current state of political chaos.
That’s where Things Change begins, with a majestic, Hammond B-3 organ-fueled rocker called “The World is On Fire,” written in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016.
“When did the land of the free become the home of the afraid?” a dazed-sounding Barham sings on the track. “Afraid of the world, afraid of the truth, afraid of each other? This ain’t the country my grandfather fought for.”
From there, Barham turns his gaze inward, recounting his struggle for sobriety on tracks like “One Day at a Time” and “I Gave Up the Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)” which is a countrified toe-tapper fit for radio. Overall, the album is an unflinching look at where Barham is now, with no punches pulled, a perspective he was never really capable of before.
“This is the first time I’ve tackled subject matter I didn’t really want to tackle, like politics, and like looking in the mirror and putting the blame on myself,” he says. “On our previous records, if there was a breakup, I would just write a song and point the finger at her. This record has a lot more introspection; it’s me looking at myself and realizing that I’m the common denominator in just about every fucked-up thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. It can all be traced back to something I did.”
It’s a tough thing to do, looking at oneself with complete honesty, but Barham didn’t shy away from it, even if some people around him wished he had.
“I’ve never had a problem sharing stuff about my personal life,” he says. “My wife has a problem with it, but I don’t. But I’ve never really talked about my sobriety, and this is the first album where I talk about that. There are two or three songs that address the political climate in this country, which is something I’ve never really done before. Sometimes you have to pepper some things into the songs to spice them up, but this record is pretty much a fastball; it’s me writing off the cuff and from the vein.”
As one might imagine, the process of writing and recording Things Change was incredibly therapeutic for Barham, especially since he was taking on being newly sober and a first-time parent.
“I think that’s why people write, why they put thoughts to paper, is to get rid of them,” he says. “It’s cathartic. I don’t know too many people who write not to get rid of that shitty stuff. If I didn’t write all that negative stuff down on paper and push it out into the world, I’d go insane, and I think a lot of writers operate that way. Nobody wants to hear songs about rainbows and sunshine. The Beatles wrote all the happy songs. For me, it’s about getting rid of a lot of the negativity in my life. And on this record, I have a lot of questions about that negativity.”
That might make it sound like Things Change is a hard slog, but Barham has been careful to create some great music to go along with his lyrical introspection. In fact, the album is getting some of the best reviews of American Aquarium’s career. Saving Country Music called Things Change “an absolute songwriting clinic,” adding that Barham turned in a set of songs that “make immediate bids for some of the best songs to be released all year.” And American Songwriter called the album “an engaging latest chapter in the ever-evolving, consistently compelling storytelling saga of one of this generation’s most overlooked roots country singer-songwriters.”
And if you’re of a similar opinion about American Aquarium’s new album, Barham isn’t going to disagree with you.
“Musicians are egotistical children,” he says with a laugh. “We all think that the new thing we’ve made is the best thing we’ve ever done, and that everything else was just garbage that led us to our current brilliance. But if we can get past that mindset for a second, I do feel like it’s my best work. A lot of our fans have come forward and said this is the best record, and I think this is an album that I’ll look back on in 10 years and still stand behind it and say, ‘We got it right.'”