American Aquarium - Things Change
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Things Change (New West, 2018)

American Aquarium

Reviewed by Robert Loy

There may be no other CD title this year quite as apropos as this one. Things have indeed changed for American Aquarium since their previous studio album (2015's underrated "Wolves"). For one thing 80 per cent of the band quit, leaving only lead vocalist and songwriter BJ Barham. He could have gone off on his own - he released a solo album, "Rockingham" in 2016 - but instead he rebuilt the band from scratch.

It's not just that the band looks different. Barham is different, too. He's sober for one thing. Gone are the drink, drugs and desperation of 2012's "Burn, Flicker, Die." (The producer of that album, Jason Isbell, is famously sober now too.) Barham has a wife and a daughter and great reasons to teetotal. And he sings of his motivations on "I Gave Up On Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)," but admits it's still hard on "One Day At a Time."

And, of course, it's not just Barham.This country and much of the rest of the world is almost unrecognizable from what it was in 2015. "This ain't the country my grandfather fought for, But I still see the hate he fought against," Barham sings on the opening track. "The World is on Fire" is about the devastation and incredulity Barham felt at Trump's election. But this is not another polemic designed to do nothing, but cause more polarization. It's an irony of art that a truly creative person can get so deeply personal in his art that it becomes universal. This is a deeply personal album for Barham. And this track and others like "Tough Folks" can be equally meaningful to Trump supporters. We've all had that feeling, like the universe just pulled the rug out from under us. Barham does not demonize those who believe differently. He makes an open-hearted effort to understand, and the "The World is on Fire" 's powerful chorus offers hope and a possible way back to unity.

"When We Were Younger Men" is the only nod to the past, BJ's no-hard-feelings-ode to his former bandmates, hoping they look back on those early days with same affection and nostalgia that he does. And the album closes with a simple but heartfelt love song, "Till the Final Curtain Falls."

Even though the band has had a major facelift, and this does not sound like any other American Aquarium CD, this is another album that will resonate in the listener's mind long after the last notes fade. Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

CDs by American Aquarium

Lamentations, 2020 Things Change, 2018 Wolves, 2015

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