By all accounts, American Aquarium lead vocalist BJ Barham has always worn his heart on his sleeve. Throughout his career, Barham has often explored the lowest points in heartbreaks, brokenhearted bust-ups, drunken confessions and fleeting, but all too enticing lust. Barham’s lead us through the dim dark lights of dive bars, cheap motel rooms, worn out vans and the grim realities of life out on the road with no real home left to go back to. Barham, for better or worse, often delivered vignettes that pulled back the curtain revealing a harsh and sometimes uncomfortable look at the struggles of young adulthood and the worst aspects of being in a working band.
On Things Change (due out June 1), American Aquarium’s seventh studio album, Barham has left nearly all that darkened imagery in the past. As the title alludes, change is constant. American Aquarium has had their fair share of change these past few years, most notably in a mass exodus of long-time band members. While the lineup change has played a major part in Barham’s life and heavily impacted Things Change, it’s not the only change Barham finds himself writing about.
With Things Change, he takes on sobriety, honest love, marriage, fatherhood, political turmoil, economic depression, but most of all, Barham takes on himself with a long, hard look in the mirror. Throughout, rather than sinking back into old habits—something a younger Barham would have done—he’s persevered and fought past the struggles. There’s something mighty to owning up to your faults and embracing them. Things Change finds Barham making it past the dawn. He’s endured and done his fair share of soul-searching.
Things Change finds Barham delivering his most even and concise collection of songs in his career. They’re marked by maturity, growth and an elevated perspective. While life is often noted by change, American Aquarium’s latest efforts don’t harken on the shifts themselves. Rather, Barham and company focus on the moments after a challenging situation.
Below, we guide you through the maturation process, reoccurring themes, and gradual change in Barham’s songwriting and American Aquarium’s sonic shift found on Things Change.
1. “The World Is On Fire”
- “The World Is On Fire” kicks off Things Change with a hesitant first step that gradually transitions into a message of optimism. For the most part, Barham’s “The World Is On Fire” highlights the fear and rift in modern Amerian society. Sparked by the 2016 Presidential Election, the opener finds Barham questioning the results. Politics pop up in the first half of Things Change, most notably in the album’s first three songs. Previously, Barham’s most political efforts have been the anti-war “Brother, Oh Brother” and those that sketch out the economic strife within the South (more on this on “Tough Folks”).
- That message of optimism is found throughout Things Change. Despite the title, “The World Is On Fire” is filled with hope and belief. This new refound faith is mainly seen in the birth of his daughter, who was born in early April. This is the first song Barham has written after learning he’d become a father in which he mentions the news. Previously, he wrote “Madeline,” a song from his solo album Rockingham, which is a love letter of sorts to a prospective daughter. Barham notes that the vast majority of his optimism stems from the birth of his daughter.
- “I started writing that the day after the election. It’s full of despair. It was coming from a place of fear and anger. I had to stop writing the song because I knew it’d turn into three verses about being mad. That’d be hypocritical of me. That’s not solving any problems. I didn’t know if I was ever going to finish it either. I didn’t want to write a ‘half the country is wrong and I’m right’ kind of song. Those never work. Speaking with people after shows while doing the Great 48 Tour, I learned a lot. I regained a lot of hope for humanity talking with people.”
- Throughout Barham’s catalog, his parents and heritage have played a vital role in his storytelling. They’re often there offering experience and valued advice. On “Crooked+Straight,” Barham’s father plays a prominent role as a mentoring guide. Everyone’s been in a situation that’s blindsided them. Much like “Tough Folks,” “Crooked+Straight” is about what dusting yourself off when life’s hurdles obstruct your journey.
- Barham has rarely brought up religion in the past. It’s lines such as “Well the church bell’s ringing down at old St. Mary’s. The sign out front says ‘Repent and receive'” from “St. Mary’s,” “We’ve got part-time jobs and full-time addictions talking about God and his best works of fiction” from “Saturday Nights” and “She started cussing like a back row Baptist” from “Katherine Belle.” Here though, much like Jason Isbell, Parker Millsap and John Fullbright, there’s a southern gothic Pentecostal element. Though in “Tough Folks,” the line “Somewhere between hypocrite and hallelujah” seem to sum up Barham’s views.
- “That’s the story of my life these past few years—being thrown a curve ball and instead of bitching about it, learning how to hit a curveball. No matter how organized or meticulous you may be, you can’t foresee everything. It’s about when those negative moments come into your life. How you react to them says so much about you as a person.”
3. “Tough Folks”
- Barham has always paid respect to the blue collar working class of America. On “Tough Folks,” he continues exploring the economic decline of his hometown (Reidsville, N.C.). “Tough Folks” seems to almost be an extension of Barham’s solo album, Rockingham, where he focused highly on the economic depression the region has seen, primarily losing its tobacco industry. Previous songs such as “American Tobacco Company” (about his grandfather), “Rockingham” (about his father), “Reidsville,” “Cape Fear River” and “Southern Sadness” (all about breaking away from his hometown) all mention the grim realities of small towns dependent on agriculture.
- If there’s one word to describe Things Change as a whole, it would be perseverance. “Tough Folks” personifies that grit, moxie and resilience. While there may be economic struggles, political turmoil and obstacles in life, sitting still and whining does nothing but exacerbate the situation. As the Springsteenesque chorus goes, “life ain’t fair. Saddle up, boy, and see it through. Tough times don’t last, tough folks do.”
- “I’ve made ‘my girl is leaving’ and ‘the road is not working out’ records. Being angry about a situation has done nothing to change the situation. I wanted to make sure that no matter what it was I was complaining about in these songs, there was some optimism. You have to fight for what you want. Resilience matters.”
4. “When We Were Younger Men”
- While Barham alludes to the breakup of American Aquarium throughout the album, it’s only on “When We Were Younger Men” that he addresses the situation head-on. Throughout much of American Aquarium, Barham has painted the highs, lows and in-betweens of being in a touring band. Much of that is documented on songs such as “Old North State,” “Losing Side of Twenty-Five,” “Harmless Sparks,” “Burn.flicker.die.” and most notably, “Casualties.” In the past, Barham’s focus on the band and touring life were mostly seen in sketches about the seasoned hard-working outfit’s persistence and grit despite not having the financial success. Here though, Barham’s focus isn’t on the struggles of being in a band or what pushed them apart. Rather, “When We Were Younger Men” transports us to a time when American Aquarium was forming. If songs like “Casualties” and “Burn.flicker.die.” was Barham showing us the harsh realities and ugly side of rock & roll, where individuals can become cynical and hardened, “When We Were Younger Men” is the rose-colored glasses flipside. This is Barham and company still in the honeymoon phase.
- One prominent figure within “When We Were Younger Men” is Tom Petty. Throughout, Barham uses Petty songs—”I Won’t Back Down,” “Running Down A Dream” and “Learning To Fly”—as a way to narrate the relationship of the band. Petty, who tragically passed away this past year, had an enormous impact on Barham, primarily in how he phrases anthemic choruses. A clever aspect to including Petty instead of any other influence is petty’s double meaning. It can be seen as both an admiration to a shared influence as well as Barham’s plea to not be jaded by the band’s breakup.
- “When we started the band, we were all on the same page. We all had the same goals, drive and taste. People who hate each other don’t start bands together. The fact that we were able to last for nearly a decade with the same lineup, give or take a few members, I hold my head high on that. It’s an accomplishment. I didn’t want to write a band version of ‘I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.’ I know they probably don’t want to hear this song now, but I hope one day they’ll hear it and can walk away from this whole experience about it fondly. We had some really great times.”
5. “One Day At A Time”
- One of the main focuses in Barham’s writing in recent years is his battle with alcohol abuse and dependency. Sobriety is one of the lynchpins of Things Change. Over the years, you see the way Barham writes about alcohol morph and change. Albums such as The Bible And The Bottle, Dances For The Lonely and Small Town Hymns are filled with songs where drinking is used as a social lubricant and scene setter. By Burn.Flicker.Die., a sharp and drastic turn has occurred. Songs such as “Jacksonville” are haunting cries for help. Another turn happens with Wolves, an album full of hints at Barham’s self-awareness and contemplation.
- While sobriety is at the heart of “One Day At A Time,” another aspect is Barham’s maturation as an individual and storyteller. Lines such as “You see the man left holding the pen controls how every story ends and truth becomes a martyr for the sake of the song” are some of Barham’s most vulnerable and honest moments in his career. There’s a strength in admitting your faults and confessing to past aggressions. Barham’s sobriety has led him to having a clearer conscience and a more aware and matured outlook.
- It’s on “Jacksonville” where Barham sings “I think I’ll spend the rest of my days with poison in my veins. Keep living the lie that Rock ‘n’ Roll’s alive, that things are gonna change.” This very well may be Barham’s lowest point he’s fallen with his addictions. Though it was some four years ago, Barham’s made quite the change since “Jacksonville.”
- Barham says that “One Day At A Time” was originally going to be a full band rocker. Producer John Fullbright insisted Barham reimagine the song as a slowed down acoustic confession. What’s used on the album is the first take of Barham performing the song. Unbeknownst to him, they recorded the song. At the end, you hear Barham setting a pair of headphones down, leaning his acoustic guitar against the wall and walking back into the control room. It was chosen as the fifth track on the album to close out the first half on vinyl. In many respects, the time it takes to flip over the record is there to fully take in and contemplate the intimate number.
- “The album Wolves hinted at sobriety. This takes it head-on. All those sober hints on that record was me contemplating sobriety. This is self-analyzation of why I let myself get that far in the hole. How do you go from being a teenager who drinks a couple of cold beers on the weekends to having a full-blown substance abuse problem? Everybody knows it starts with needing just one beer. Then you slowly need two, then you need three and then you end up needing a bottle of Jameson.”
Read More: The 15 Best American Aquarium Songs, Ranked
6. “Things Change”
- Much like “One Day At A Time,” Barham’s outlook on love and relationships has grown past the angry raw emotions of “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.” This new found perspective doesn’t discredit songs of the past, but it does mark as a transition in Barham’s songwriting. Previously on Wolves, Barham began to explore the flipside of these broken relationships with the song “End Over End.” It’s there where Barham morphs into a previous ex and writes from her perspective.
- “Things change and people don’t stay the same” may sound like a simple and obvious statement, but it’s often when Barham is straightforward and candid when he finds his most resonating messages. Barham says one of his songwriting compasses is to try and “say a lot with a little.”
- “I think around 31 is when that turning point of looking back at every broken relationship I’ve ever had and realizing I was the common denominator. That’s a heavy moment for anyone. I think I’m finally comfortable enough in my own skin as a broken person. Early on, I wasn’t able to or willing to look myself in the mirror. Youthful pride has a way of getting in the way. And of course, the storyteller is rarely going to make themselves look bad.”
7. “Work Conquers All”
- “Work Conquers All” is American Aquarium’s nod to Oklahoma. The band recorded Things Change in Tulsa at 3CG Records with famed Oklahoma songwriter John Fullbright. The second half of Things Change finds American Aquarium going back to some of their country roots and is the band’s most twangy album since The Bottle And The Bible. Much of that is contributed by legendary fiddle player Byron Berline (Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and many, many more). In addition, songwriters John Moreland and Jamie Lin Wilson (as well as Fullbright) contribute harmony vocals to Things Change.
- The Oklahoma state motto is Labor Omnia Vincit, Latin for “labor conquers all things.” Again, Barham circles back to the blue-collar themes found in “The World Is On Fire,” “Crooked+Straight” and “Tough Folks.” “Work Conquers All” is just that—a straightforward narrative about genuine effort and hard work.
- “This record, I wanted more of that country sound. When we had the opportunity to work with Byron Berline on fiddle, I wanted it on as much as possible. The pedal steel has always been dominant on American Aquarium records, but I wanted to make it in more of a traditional kind of way. That second half does really play out more like a country record. The back half is growing up in rural North Carolina in the ’80s and listening to country music.”
8. “I Gave Up The Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)”
- Barham says “I Gave Up The Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)” was him wanting to have a Waylon Jennings type of country rambler without having to dress up like Jennings. Much like a countrified version of “Ramblin’ Ways” or “Who Needs A Song,” Barham narrates meeting his wife and falling in love. The results are an almost John Prine-esque tongue-in-cheek playfulness chalk full of cliche winks and nods at some of Barham’s country heroes. As he mentions, it’s built up like a drinking song, but in reality is about sobriety.
- Like “Work Conquers All,” “I Gave Up The Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)” relocates American Aquarium to the heartland. Specifically, the lines “It was one late summer in old Cow Town, we were shutting down the Motor Lounge” is in reference to Fort Worth venue Magnolia Motor Lounge.
- “We kind of wanted to boogie a little on it. It’s a honky-tonk drinking song about sobriety. I wanted to give it one of those stereotypical country titles too. That’s one of the things I made very clear. It had to be one of those where it was the title and then the parenthesis after. There’s that playfulness to it that I’ve rarely done in American Aquarium songs. It’s like singing the whole thing with a wry smirk on your face.”
9. “Shadows Of You”
- On “Shadows Of You,” Barham wears a familiar suit—being on the wrong side of a heartbreak. A staple of American Aquarium’s career has been the sad ballad heartbreaker. While raw emotional singalong anthems such as “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,” “Ain’t Going To The Bar Tonight” and “Hurricane” are notable stables in Barham’s breakup catalog, Barham typically deals with heartbreak with intimate solitary confessionals. In the past, songs such as “City Lights,” “Betting Man” “Tennessee” and “End Over End” have played out like late night phone calls we’ve been eavesdropping in on.
- “Everybody’s went through this. I know some of the material on the album, some folks are going to say they’ve personally not gone through that themselves. But this is one of those moments they have. It’s pining after someone who you could have had for a brief second or 10 years and lost them. It really couldn’t be an American Aquarium record with at least one sad bastard song on it.”
10. “‘Til The Final Curtain Falls”
- The album-closing “‘Til The Final Curtain Falls” finds Barham delivering a proper love song to his wife. He uses the motif of show business to portray his never-ending love and dedication to her. In an album filled with change, “‘Til The Final Curtain Falls” is a constant. If sobriety was Barham’s biggest change these past few years, falling in love has been the catalyst.
- In many ways, the song is the antithesis of “Things Change,” a where Barham admits not being strong or mature enough to handle a genuine relationship. Here though, Barham’s grown to realize that love isn’t easy and you must work it. With “‘Til The Final Curtain Falls,” Barham’s found commitment.
- “This is a love note to my wife. The only real love song I’ve written is ‘Man I’m Supposed To Be.’ That was more of a ‘she makes me want to be a better person’ kind of song. This is ‘she’s made me better and I refuse to let that go.’ We go through all these changes on the record, but this is the one that’s about a constant. Situations will forever be changing and shifting, but this love will not.”