American Aquariumâ€™s stirring new album Burn.Flicker.Die. opens with a haunting lushness before lead singer B.J. Barhamâ€™s powerful voice cuts through: â€œI was born in the valley of Cape Fear River.â€
â€œCape Fear Riverâ€ is a vigorous and dark rock song about the burdens of our roots, about the decline of rural America, about young men trying to live up to their fathersâ€™ expectations, about hitting the road. â€œWe arenâ€™t the men, we arenâ€™t the men our fathers were,â€ B.J. sings.
And later: â€œSomehow I still think I made him proud, just by getting out.â€
The Raleigh-based American Aquariumâ€™s previous albums have captured the intense resentment of jilted lovers and the desperation of trying to find a place in the world, often with biting irony, but Burn.Flicker.Die. has an emotional depth and musical breadth that goes beyond the earlier work. And I love the earlier work: both Dances for the Lonely and Small Town Hymns have been in steady rotation at my house since they came out.
â€œCape Fear Riverâ€ isnâ€™t the only song that evokes a specific place.In â€œJacksonvilleâ€, a night on the road leads into pensive musings about the rock and roll life: â€œIf I make it out alive, Iâ€™ll call, you know I will.â€ â€œSavannah Almost Killed Meâ€ begins: â€œWell Savannah almost killed me with cheap beer and Irish whiskey.â€ Spontaneous romance transitions into a one-night standâ€™s desperation to seize the moment and blot out the past and the future: â€œLetâ€™s waste away tonight â€“ letâ€™s drink it down so fast.â€
So much of contemporary country music has a jingoistic defensiveness, but anyone who has heard B.J.â€™s rants about Toby Keith knows what he thinks about that strain of Southern culture. The South of American Aquarium is one of unfulfilling jobs and broken dreams — we either succumb or rage against it. The ballad â€œCasualtiesâ€, which wraps those themes up with the perils of life on the road, lilts upward with a sense of both pride and loss: â€œI used to be a decent man, then life just took its toll.â€
Iâ€™m surely making all of this sound way, way too heavy â€“ certainly heavier than the bandâ€™s tight, energetic, and joyous live shows. The themes are dark â€“ â€œWe burn too long, we flicker and dieâ€ â€“ but the lyrics often shimmer with humor and unexpected pleasure. There’s sharp imagery captured in unpredictable rhymes.
And the instrumentation, which often has an even broader range than the lyrics, is often beautiful as it calls upon the great traditions of southern rock, honky tonk country, even blues.
The complexity of the sound is surely due in part to recording the album in Muscle Shoals with Jason Isbell, but far more credit goes to the band membersâ€™ individual skills and collective ear.
Whit Wright on pedal steel, Ryan Johnson on lead guitar, Bill Corbin on bass, and Kevin McClain on drums drive the songs that need driven and then back off to give room for B.J.
Sure, there are a few choices on the album that don’t work as well as others. The closing seconds of the title track have sounded great live, but the seriousness of the repeated chorus seems a bit too heavy here. And I wish the stories occasionally unfolded as simpler narratives rather than as explorations of such dark themes. But those are minor quibbles.
Thereâ€™s a release show tonight in Raleigh. American Aquariumâ€™s tour to promote the album kicks off at The Jinx in Savannah on Friday, August 31st.
Click here to listen to or purchase the album on the bandâ€™s website.
Click here for other upcoming tour dates.
And here are a few pics I took the last time American Aquarium came through Savannah, just this past June: