American Aquarium

They are trying to break your heart

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

It’s likely, if you’ve been alive on this Earth for any length of time, you’ve been lucky in love.

It’s also likely that, life being what it is, you’ve been unlucky in love as well.

There’s nothing quite like experiencing the personal emotional holocaust that is a romantic breakup. Such a severing can sometimes be smooth sailing, but, more often than not, breaking up is a soul-sucking, dignity-stealing endeavor, a time during which the tears are ugly, the laughter reluctant and the urge to drunk dial must be guarded against at all costs.

While we all have our own rituals for navigating such difficult times, it’s safe to say that music probably plays some kind of role for all of us. Each of us likely has our own personal soundtrack of breakup anthems designed to, by turns, make us feel empowered or drive us further into the seductive black hole that is wallowing.

However, when BJ Barham suffers a broken heart, he doesn’t just queue up a playlist of breakup anthems, he writes them. And when he does, they cut right to the chase and straight to the heart.

His band, North Carolina’s American Aquarium, has recorded six albums in seven years, but it’s a song from their 2009 album Dances for the Lonely that they’re best known for—and as far as breakup anthems go, it might be simple, but it’s a real barnburner.

Called “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,” the chorus is as plain as it gets: “And I hope he breaks your heart/And I hope you cry all night/And I hope you feel the way I do now.” Clearly, it’s a song about what happens when the one you love moves on before you do—and if we’re being at all honest here, I’m guessing every one of us can relate to the sentiment that spawned it.

Of course, if you happen to be in attendance at American Aquarium’s show Sat., April 13 at the Green Frog, you’ll likely see this song and its power in action—not only is it the band’s most popular song, but it’s also one helluva sing-along jam.

But American Aquarium has far more than just one song in its creative arsenal. As I mentioned, their output is impressive, with Barham chronicling his life seemingly in real time, and his songs touch on not just breakups, but love, youth and what happens to a life when so much of it is spent on the road and away from home.

Indeed, since its inception, American Aquarium has toured like a band possessed, joining that exclusive (read: insane) cadre of bands for whom playing a couple of hundred shows a year means they’re just getting started. While Barham’s North Carolina drawl is both his badge of honor and calling card, but if it ever started to soften around the edges, he could hardly be blamed as he spends so little time in his home state that forgetting where he came from could be considered an occupational hazard.

Barham addresses his nomadic existence, as well as the other consequences of his chosen path on American Aquarium’s most recent album, last year’s Burn.Flicker.Die, the band’s most realized recorded output to date. Produced by another practitioner of a roots-rock, hard-living, perpetual-touring lifestyle, former Drive By Trucker Jason Isbell, the album represents a sort of coming of age, even for a band with as much real-life experience as this one. At some point in every band’s life, they begin to grapple with the wisdom of their own continued existence, as they try to figure out if a payout that can be measured in the number of floors slept on, gas-station meals eaten and debts left unpaid is worth the considerable investment involved in chasing a horizon that never seems to get any closer.

The difference for American Aquarium is they took this struggle and put it front and center on Burn.Flicker.Die, and the result is as heartfelt and honest as anything they’ve done to date, while also touching on a whole new level of maturity and clear-eyed self-assessment for Barham.

“I wish my addictions didn’t mean so much/But we can’t all be born with that kind of luck,” Barham sings. It might not be a breakup anthem, but it’s a sentiment that I suspect we can all relate to.

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