Barham and company have been knocked down, but show no sign of giving up in the face of darkness and hatred.
Country music has long been seen as the music of the people, its subject matter often dealing with blue-collar issues in the face of white-collar inequities. But as we’ve become increasingly divided as a nation, these previously well-defined sociopolitical lines have been all but erased, with much of the country’s working poor and disaffected throwing their support behind a New York real estate tycoon and television personality with zero political experience and an incredibly sketchy track record in terms of waffling in his stances to better fit his needs. When Donald Trump was elected president in November of 2016, the entire world changed overnight. It was a change so upsetting and confusing to some that many found they no longer recognized the country in which they were living.
American Aquarium frontman and songwriter BJ Barham was one such individual. In the wake of the presidential election, Barham packed up his guitar, got in his car and drove across the country, embarking on a tour of the continental U.S. dubbed the Great 48 Tour. The purpose was to get out among the people of the country he thought he knew in order to see what made them tick and what could possibly compel them to put such a false savior in office. This experience and the current state of our country informs the bulk of the appropriately-titled Things Change.
Opening track “The World Is on Fire” lays out Barham and co.’s political, social and ideological stance, pulling no punches and calling out the current cultural climate for what it is and using Barham’s solo tour as a jumping off point. “I packed up my car and went looking for answers/ To the questions weighin’ on my mind/ When did the Land of the Free become the Home of the Afraid?/ Afraid of the world, afraid of the truth, afraid of each other.” Its deeply personal verses are unfortunately offset by post-9/11 Springsteen-esque lyrics built around clichéd phrases (“The load is heavy and the road is long”) and cringe-worthy conclusions (“We must go boldly into the darkness and be the light”).
Yet the autobiographical verse structure helps give greater weight to these otherwise featherlight platitudes. When Barham sings/snarls/sighs, “This ain’t the country my grandfather fought for/ But I still see the hate he fought against,” the current cultural divide is given a deeply person context that many in the flag-waving contingent will not be able to dispute. In this, “The World Is on Fire” is as effective a lyrical assessment of 2018 America as one could hope to find, country artist or otherwise.
The rest of the album largely follows suit, exploring religious hypocrisy (“Crooked + Straight”), the deep-seeded sense of Southern tradition and the contradictions contained therein (“Tough Folks”) and Barham’s own struggles with alcohol (“One Day at a Time”). “Tough Folks” is particularly pointed as Barham sings, “I’m caught in the shadows of the American South/ Somewhere between hypocrite and hallelujah.” He then goes on to lay bare the standard line of thinking with regard to Southern tradition and the importance of heritage and family: “Six generations of barely getting’ by/ Six generations of hate, what’s it to ya?,” he sings before refocusing the lens, “When the only thing harder than the work is the luck/ The outcome’s as hopeful as the evenin’ news/ And last November I saw firsthand/ What desperation makes good people do.”
Things Change certainly offers its fair share of bleak lyrical impressions of our country as it stands. But it is underscored by the traditional themes of poor folks coming through the hard times, through the lean years and making the best of a given situation by never giving up hope. “’Til the Final Curtain Falls” manages to sum up all of this in the alt-country equivalent (albeit far less cloying) of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” its sentiments ringing strong and true within the country music tradition. Things do in fact change and, so long as we all stick together and try to make sense of this world we’re now living in, they just might change for the better. Barham and company have been knocked down, but show no sign of giving up in the face of darkness and hatred.