American Aquarium’s New Album Is a Heartbreaking but Muted Effort

“I used to be a singer with a family back home, but now I’m just a father and a husband who knows his way around a microphone,” sings BJ Barham on American Aquarium’s new album, Chicamacomico. It’s a sign of what’s to come on the band’s ninth studio album, a subdued affair that keeps Barham’s storytelling at the forefront. With 2020’s Lamentations, the North Carolina band narrowed in on the South’s dark history for a political record that doubled as Barham’s strongest set of lyrics in years. Chicamacomico is far less of a barnburner, nor is it one of American Aquarium’s most engaging albums, but it is firmly and comfortably within the band’s wheelhouse. Throughout the album, Barham pores over a couple of pet topics, from the cracks and highlights of domestic life to those lingering, difficult feelings that come when you look directly at grief.

Since 2005, Barham has led his country-rock collective through hell or high water. American Aquarium is famously centered around his songwriting, so it’s had over 25 different members over the years and nearly broke up after 2012’s Burn. Flicker. Die. But with Jason Isbell’s production and a handful of the best songs Barham has ever written, American Aquarium rose from the ashes and trucked onward after that album’s success. Even with several more lineup changes—2017 saw everyone except for Barham exit—he’s been able to continue doing what he does best: writing steady, earnest country songs with the reliability of an old truck.

Which, of course, makes it only fair that Chicamacomico contains a song that uses an old truck as a metaphor for Barham’s marriage. “Built to Last” is a moment of sweetness on an album that toggles between loss and love, but it ends up feeling rather unexciting. Behind faded electric guitars and a laidback feel, he sings about the car’s chipped paint and how it struggles in second gear, but also—of course—about how “there’s still plenty of good miles left underneath the hood.” And even though Barham always tries to imbue his silliest songs with passion, the goofball metaphor doesn’t quite work. For “Built to Last,” Barham and his band just sound asleep behind the wheel.

That agreeable cutesiness appears elsewhere throughout the album, but it often exists as a direct contrast to Chicamacomico’s darkest moments. With its consistent boom of a drumbeat and a killer combination of interlocked organ and piano parts, the title track both opens the album and establishes its tone with some straight-from-therapy lyrics. Over jagged touches of harmonica, Barham sings, “It’s been the kind of year that damn near broke us clean in two,” about the loss his family experienced. When he sings, “Honey, I lost him too,” in reference to the death of their son, the grief becomes plain-spoken and all the more affecting.

Complete with lap steel and fingerpicked acoustic guitars, “The Hardest Thing” acts as the platonic ideal of Barham’s simplest songs. The drums don’t ever rise above a slight tap, while the bass only makes itself known when adding emphasis during the chorus. What helps “The Hardest Thing” avoid mediocrity is fellow North Carolinian Kate Rhudy’s backing vocals. While she appears across Chicamacomico, it’s on this ballad where her hushed support carries the song the furthest. By the final moments, Barham even finds a small flicker of hope in a song about the passing of his mom. “Even though my thumb ain’t green, I think [the flowers] are gonna make it,” he sings, the line lingering as Neil Jones’ steel guitar closes out the track.

One of Barham’s strongest traits as a songwriter is his charm offensive, which helps a song like “Little Things” avoid his more hackneyed tendencies. With the bluesy pianos and clean electric guitar licks, the album’s second song clearly has a heavy hand, but Ryan Van Fleet’s metronomic drumbeat and plucked acoustic guitars ensure the song sidesteps complete cheesiness. But even in a song about the little things that help keep Barham grounded—doing dishes, coffee in the morning, singing his wife to sleep—there are a few moments dedicated to how “last year nearly broke” him. While American Aquarium know how to make sure a song like this grooves, Barham balances the roses and thorns even on his happiest, most schmaltzy songs.

It’s on “All I Needed” where Chicamacomico comes to a close, featuring a steady heartland-rock sound that elevates it into one of American Aquarium’s best tunes. Acoustic guitars jangle around and organs hangout in the background, but this song succeeds because of Brad Cook’s production, which makes every snare drum thump with excitement and each steel guitar slide ring loud and clear. “All I Needed”’s song-as-a-savior narrative is the album’s most resonant moment, especially because Chicamacomico is a record of downbeat material and occasionally bland songwriting. If “All I Needed” is a reflection of Barham writing what he knows best, American Aquarium clearly know big, earnest rock-tinged country songs.

Ethan Gordon is a writer from Pittsburgh who is currently living in Manhattan. His work can be found at Bandcamp, No Ripcord, and others.

Revisit American Aquarium’s 2021 Paste session below.