Review: American Aquarium’s “Things Change” is Themes of Hope and Progressive Ideals


The title of American Aquarium’s standout seventh album, Things Change, refers to both events within the band and in the larger world.  In 2017, the band’s previous lineup dissolved, leading frontman B.J. Barham to reform American Aquarium with a new group of musicians: Shane Boeker (guitar), Joey Bybee (drums), Ben Hussey (bass), and Adam Kurtz (pedal steel).

While Things Change alludes to these changes within American Aquarium, its connection to the larger world is evidenced in the album’s powerful first track, “The World is on Fire,” written by Barham in reaction to the 2016 presidential election.  In the fourth verse, Barham sings, “This ain’t the country my grandfather fought for.” Like Barham, I have found myself thinking about what my grandfather – a refugee from Nazi Germany – would have made of this moment in our history. And like Barham, “I still see the hate he fought against.”

The chorus of the “World Is On Fire” contains the unifying message of the album:

We just can’t give in, we just can’t give up
We must go boldly into the darkness
And be the light.

American Aquarium has meticulously structured Things Change around themes of hope and progressive ideals;  family, friendship, and love; and the relationships among these concepts. Barham’s intelligent, literary songwriting shapes a heartfelt vision of high, abstract ideals through in personal, intimate stories crystallized with poignant, powerful images. On “Crooked + Straight,” Barham tells us about his family and his Southern Baptist faith, and how he rejected it because it had “too much fear, too much hate.” “Tough Times” paints a portrait of life in the Carolinas, leaving the listener with a message of hope: “Tough times don’t last, but tough folks do.”

Things Change will solidify American Aquarium’s reputation as one of the leading lights of alt-country.  While their sound is straight-up country rock, and their themes of family, faith, and American ideals are classic country, the lyrics are considerably more literary and political than – specifically, to the left of – “mainstream” country.  Things Change challenges and provokes listeners, prompting them to consider songs both individually and as a part of well-structured album.  Listening to the whole album, I feel like I have seen the American landscape set out before me, from the Carolina tobacco farms to Richmond to Oklahoma.  Things Change is well worth listening to in its entirety without interruption, and is worthy of repeat listens to pick up all its subtleties. Get your copy, here, and check for tour dates too.

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