American Aquarium’s new album, “Things Change,” is aptly named. A lot has happened to BJ Barham and his North Carolina-based country-rock band since they released 2015’s “Wolves.”
They released a live album, “Live at Terminal West.” Barham got married. He also put out a solo record, “Rockingham,” in 2016. He promoted it on on a tour of all 48 contiguous states in 59 days.
On Nov. 8, 2016, Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States.
Last April, American Aquarium completely dissolved, all five members besides Barham hanging it up for good. Barham addressed the switch-up in a Facebook post, where he wrote, “American Aquarium isn’t going anywhere. Like most things in life, band members change, however these songs and my dreams of playing them for folks every night do not. I’ve had to replace 20+ band members over the last decade and this time, although much harder, will be no different.”
In 2018, Barham had a daughter.
For “Things Change,” the band is signed to a new record label, New West Records. The new lineup includes Shane Boeker (formerly with Austin Meade) on lead guitar, Joey Bybee (previously of Texas band Crooks) on the drums, Ben Hussey (also a Texan) on bass guitar, Adam Kurtz on pedal steel and electric guitar and producer John Fullbright appearing on keys and guitar, and singing at some points.
And on June 1, “Things Change” will officially enter the world.
That’s a lot to pack into an album, but Barham and his new cohort pull it off with aplomb. And make no mistake, while this band functions as a unit, they clearly have a leader, and American Aquarium is Barham’s vision through and through.
“Things Change” is Barham simultaneously at his most angry and his most hopeful. The opening track, “The World Is On Fire,” announces its intentions right away:
“She looked out the window and said, ‘The world's on fire’
That's when I laughed and poured her a glass of wine
We just stared at the TV tryin' to find some meanin'
Hopin' that we'd wake up from this dream
Yes, folks, this is a song about reckoning with a Trump presidency. Barham leaves no doubt where he stands on our current leader. Part of his reasoning for his “Great 48” tour was to understand how people could have voted for Trump, a move that was all but foretold on “Rockingham,” which saw Barham inhabiting characters in rural America who are faced with nothing but bad and worse choices.
While “Things Change” sounds a lot like an electric, band-backed sequel to “Rockingham,” Barham doesn’t despair here. No, “Things Change” is the happiest Barham’s sounded on a record in quite some time. While “The World Is On Fire” opens with a gut punch of fear and uncertainty, it closes with a rallying cry of hope — for him, his wife, his daughter, his fans, his country.
The load is heavy and the road is long
And we've only begun to fight
We just can't give in, we just can't give up
We must go boldly into the darkness
And be the light
Elsewhere on the album, Barham examines growth and hope, both personal and professional. He examines the toll that touring can take on a band in “When We Were Younger Men”; takes a look at how hard times tend to make people stronger in “Tough Folks”; reflects on his sobriety in “One Day At a Time”; and wrestles with his faith and his musical journey on “Crooked+Straight.”
His writing here is unmatched by the rest of his catalog. Especially on “One Day At a Time” and “The World Is On Fire,” Barham’s penning some of the best lyrics of his career.
And as for that new lineup? They sound great, especially Adam Kurtz, who gets ample time to shine on the pedal steel. Fullbright makes the most out of his appearance on the keys. The band as a whole sounds new, propulsive, invigorated with new life, yet still the same. That’s a testament to Barham’s resilience and longevity, and the new band’s technical chops.
For American Aquarium, it seems, there is hope in the darkness and growth in the tough times. And regardless of your political beliefs, that’s a message worth hearing and fighting for.
American Aquarium is already on tour to promote “Things Change.” Their Texas stops will be in Houston, New Braunfels, Dallas and Lubbock. Grab tickets here.