Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
The American landscape that the North Carolina band American Aquarium paints for us is similar to the one that the Drive-By Truckers can't help but experience, just with fewer gothic figures. It's a landscape that feels mostly southern and mostly old and worn down. It's one that's synonymous with the great American struggle. It has nothing to do with prosperity or any kind of nationalism, any kind of rosy pride. It has everything to do with taking what you can get, even if that's so little that it hurts.
It's not necessary a landscape that rewards the hard workers with what they think they might actually be working for, but it rewards them with just enough of it and an abundance of virtues and all of the crucial touches of morality that others sadly aren't aware of. The people in American Aquarium songs are figures of broken down bodies and even more dilapidated minds, sinking beneath the weight of all the difficulty that never stops its siege. It just keeps coming on and coming on until it takes the body over and that's when the darkness sets in some.
Lead singer and songwriter BJ Barham is another of the modern maestros in the verse of drunken times and what it means to get to those points, not to mention what kinds of conclusions can come from such scenarios. The blackouts and the temperature of those nights, when everything seems as if it's as wrong as it can get - your woman is being unfaithful and mean and the funds are non-existent - is what steels a man sometimes. It's the stance that Barham might willingly argue. American Aquarium memorializes the town bar and the many existences that revolve around such an establishment. It memorializes the specific tastes that certain alcohols give us and what they conjure up. There are the broken hallelujahs that Barham sings about and there are the many claims on the desperate times that just keep happening without much mercy. There's much love involved in these desperate times and that's really what keeps any of the spirit of these folks - in the face of indulging with spirits. Barham sings, "Oh lord she took my breath away/And when she called me darlin'/I started caterwaulin'/Oh I had nothin' else to say/I wanted to make that glorious mistake," on "Rattlesnake" and we're intimately aware that the rough patches are already built into the story. It's the way it goes. The setting demands it.
*Essay originally published October, 2010