SPOTLIGHT: The Twists and Turns That Led to American Aquarium’s ‘Lamentations’
Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins
EDITOR’S NOTE: American Aquarium is No Depression‘s Spotlight Band for May 2020. Look for more from the band and frontman BJ Barham all month long.
“There’s no handbook for releasing an album in the middle of a global pandemic. But if any band is ready to adapt, we’re that band.”
BJ Barham is sitting in his home in North Carolina, taking a break from packing mailers of his band’s new record, Lamentations, which comes out Friday. This marks American Aquarium’s eighth studio album and Barham seems at peace — as much as one can be — with celebrating a new LP during this unprecedented crisis.
“The country is in a weird spot, a lot of people are struggling,” he says. “A lot of people are out of work. People need these kinds of distractions. Instead of taking it away and putting it out when it might be better to put out an album, we’re going to go ahead and release it. We’ve worked too hard on this record and we believe in it. If there’s ever a time to release a record like Lamentations, it’s right now.”
There is a prophetic voice that guides the new album. Though it was recorded in December, Lamentations features 10 tracks that highlight the things that can break humanity, including financial loss, political strife, and death. “If COVID-19 never happened, this record would still be just as effective,” Barham says, though there is no sense of joy in this statement. “Loss is not something that only happens during a disease or once every 100 years. On a daily basis, people are having to deal with the themes of this record.”
He takes a breath.
“But throw in a global pandemic, and this album really hits home for a lot of people.”
Lament for the American Dream
Prayers of lament are some of the most common prayers found in the Bible; there’s an entire book that shares a name with American Aquarium’s new record. In Western society, though, individuals prefer to lift their voices to their respective gods with more self-serving prayers. But when one laments, one simply cries out in grief with no goal other than giving a voice to injustice and suffering.
“The dictionary’s definition of lament is simply an extreme expression of sorrow or grief,” Barham says, “but look at the biblical version. There is a central character who cries out to God, who questions the very existence of God, because God has turned his back on this man and this man’s country. I saw a lot of parallels between questioning God’s existence because of political turmoil and what we’re experiencing. That’s originally where I got the idea for Lamentations.”
Out of that, Barham put pen to paper and wrote what would turn into the title track and opener of the record, “Me and Mine (Lamentations).” Over the course of seven minutes, the band creates an atmosphere like nothing that’s ever been recorded by American Aquarium, an almost ambient space that builds into a freakout crescendo, all in support of Barham’s devastating lyrics of deception, disappointment, and demise as he laments what’s become of the American Dream.
“You can tell where I was when I wrote that song,” he admits. “It’s very much me standing up for what I believe in, standing up for the people who I think are being misrepresented and bamboozled.”
Barham is no stranger to being public about his opinions, but there’s something that resonates deeper than just politics on Lamentations. Maybe it’s the grief that saturates the opening track, or the autobiographical struggle with life after sobriety found on “Six Years Come September,” featuring one of Barham’s favorite lines on the whole album: “I’ve been cursed with this clarity.”
It might be the all-too-real heartache of “The Day I Learned to Lie to You,” as Barham sings, “I know good and well that I’m going straight to hell / For all the things I put you through / My biggest regret in life, the thing that keeps me up at night / The day I learned how to lie to you.”
But whatever that something is, it resonates most powerfully on the flawless “A Better South.”
“There are so many people who sit around and talk about how good our country could be, especially in the South,” he explains. “But nothing’s going to change until we all go out and put our thoughts into action.”
Barham cites Patterson Hood and Drive-by Truckers as inspirations for living with a love-hate relationship with the South. “They’ve always been really great at talking about that duality,” says Barham, who grew up in the central North Carolina small town of Reidsville. “You love the culture, food, music, and people, but you also hate the dark history, having to come to terms with the fact that most of our great-grandparents were racists and bad people. Don’t get me wrong, in the last 50 years or so, we’ve made some progress, but then you see us every now and then take two steps back. If 2016 taught me anything, it’s that we like to pretend that the South sees everything through these rose-colored glasses — ‘We killed racism, it’s done, there’s no more hate in the South.’ … Well, that is, until you have a politician who tells you it’s okay to talk about your hate. Then all of a sudden you see this disgusting underbelly of something that I love.”
A self-professed “progressive redneck,” Barham realizes he doesn’t fit comfortably into any political category. “I don’t believe in big government. I believe in the 2nd Amendment, but I also believe in equal rights and a woman’s right to choose,” he says. “I’m not liberal enough for my liberal friends and I’m not conservative enough for my conservative friends, and you know what? I think that’s most of the country.”
“A Better South” is Barham’s attempt to lament this reality while standing up for his Southern pride. “The only dream that ain’t worth having, is the one you won’t chase down,” he sings on the stunning track. “They say sing your songs, boy, and shut your mouth / But I believe in a better South.”
When he hears those lyrics read back to him, there’s a genuine sense of frustration with wanting to live up to the song’s theme. But his frustration doesn’t end with grief; it points toward hope.
“When you tell somebody that you’re a proud Southerner, they think you’re flying a Confederate flag and screaming, ‘South’s gonna rise again!,’” he says. “That’s not what it’s about. Being a proud Southerner is knowing what we could be and not just talking about it, but putting that talk into action.”
Sorrow and struggle aren’t abstract themes on Lamentations; they were very real for Barham as he prepared to record. Two weeks before heading to Memphis to make the album, Barham learned the original producer was backing out.
“We got told they had a gut feeling that it wasn’t a right fit for them,” Barham says. “As a writer, that took a huge toll on me. Are the songs not good? I sent these people “Me and Mine” and “The Day I Learned to Lie to You,” what I consider some of my best writing in a very, very long time, and they told me it wasn’t a good fit.”
For the next week, Barham found himself practicing the very thing his new album would be named after. Sitting in confusion and grief, he began to question whether this was even the album he was supposed to be making right now. But in that lament, a glimmer of hope burst into flames. “My booking agent called me and asked if I would have any interest in working with Shooter Jennings,” Barham says, replaying how his jaw hit the floor when he received that call. As fate would have it, Barham’s booking agent represents Jennings.
“When it popped up on my radar, before even listening, I said I’d love to,” Jennings says about being thrust into the producer’s seat for Lamentations. A fan of American Aquarium since he first heard 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die., Jennings still keeps “Abe Lincoln” in his weekly listening rotation. “When I heard the songs, they really had a profound impact on me emotionally. I could feel it already, and I knew we would be able to make a slamming record together.”
Though Barham still wanted to record in Memphis, Jennings suggested he and the band come to his home turf in Southern California instead to record at engineer David Spreng’s studio.
“It was really weird to take this record, which in my mind was a Memphis record, to Southern California,” Barham confesses. “But we couldn’t have made this record in Memphis. It definitely has that Southern California vibe to it, and Shooter added the Shooter touch. He’d say, ‘Well, what if we do a Paul Simon drum thing and then give it a Latin feel and have these experimental Pink Floyd guitars and then we double down the vocals and then we turn the pedal steel into a theremin for a second?’ And luckily for me, I have a band that is all on the same wavelength and could do everything Shooter was hearing in his head.”
That band is made up of guitarist Shane Boeker, Rhett Huffman on keys, pedal steel player Neil Jones, percussionist Ryan Van Fleet, and bassist Alden Hedges, and Barham proudly calls Jennings the seventh member of American Aquarium, an accolade the producer humbly accepts.
“It’s really easy to make music with people who love music,” Jennings says, “and BJ is somebody that has a fire in his eyes and his belly to be greater and stronger and more introspective with each record. I always feel really fortunate to be able to be inserted into a well-oiled working dynamic. With American Aquarium, I got to stay in the control room and really work with every member of the band with a clear head. With such a powerful live band, it was really fun just to be the guy in the back of the room rooting on the dissonant moments of the music.”
A Roller Coaster
Six months later, Barham is still in a bit of awe as he recounts the twisty path that led to being in the studio with Jennings.
“To go from that kind of valley to having the hottest producer in music right now? Talk about an emotional roller coaster,” he confides. “Shooter wasn’t doing us a personal favor. He loved our songs and he wanted to make a record.”
“BJ and that band and I will be lifelong friends after this whether we do more projects or not. I’m very proud of what we did.”
Lamentations is leveling-up in moral courage and fearlessness on Barham’s part as a songwriter and bandleader, and it’s a level of musicianship that has never existed in American Aquarium’s storied discography. Thanks in large part to Jennings, all of those things come together for a career-defining, unforgettable masterpiece.
“It’s a collective consciousness between all the members of the band,” Jennings explains, “and my job is to kind of steer the plane into the storm while everyone else is doing what they need to do to keep the engine running and all the passengers calm. BJ is excellent at this, and he’s just a really funny, charismatic guy. His enthusiasm for the record is that rocket fuel, and all I have to do is take off, have a few drinks, and land the thing safely ahead of schedule and on budget. Some of that slips, but sometimes it all comes together into something really special.”