When future generations look back on this important era for independent country, Southern rock, and Americana, they will marvel how artists calling their own shots finally emerged from the shadows of Music Row, and be amazed at the creative output that opportunity ultimately allowed. As time goes on, certain artists and albums on the margins tend to fade away, while the stuff that withstands the test of time continues to come even more clearer into focus, and venerated for its value and impact.
A small handful of albums will best define these moments: Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, Purgatory by Tyler Childers, The Adobe Sessions by Cody Jinks, Diamonds & Gasoline by the Turnpike Troubadours, and a few others. No offense to their more recent output, or their earlier stuff, but when it comes to American Aquarium, their most lasting contribution to this era—at least from the perspective of this particular moment in time—will be their 2012 album Burn. Flicker. Die., released ten years ago today.
This is an unusual retrospective to compose, because Burn. Flicker. Die. is one of the few albums where Saving Country Music was around and reviewed the album when it was originally released. But like all albums worthy of retrospective recognition, its importance has grown over time. The fact that Jason Isbell produced the album when he was still a relative unknown and scrapping for attention himself makes it remarkable, as is how the album continues to seed much of what you hear when you go see American Aquarium live today.
The song “Lonely Ain’t Easy” from Burn. Flicker. Die. still may be American Aquarium’s most stirring ballad. “Saint Mary’s” remains one of their biggest anthems… “where American girls drink Mexican beer, and city boys sing small town hymns!” But most importantly, it’s songs like the title track of the album and “Casualties” that have really gone on to define what we think of when we think of American Aquarium.
The theme of Burn. Flicker. Die. and the circumstances surrounding its writing are spelled out right there in these songs. After trekking out from North Carolina with dreams of “making it,” by 2012, frontman BJ Barham and American Aquarium were still barely scraping by, traveling around in old church vans, playing to half empty barrooms with not much hope for ever finding a way to make it a sustainable living.
So unwilling to sell out, and unable to earn a significant audience under their current direction while adhering to their founding principles, they chose to wholly unburden their failures and frustrations upon the audience in a full exhalation: their broken dreams, their failed relationships, the disappointments of their families, their addictions and proclivities. And the results were an audio version of high art, however growling it was delivered, or seedy the subject matter was. And ironically—and despite the title of the album—it was the spark that lit the fire that is still burning behind the eyes of this band today.
At their last possible breaking point before absolute annihilation and the resignation to go get regular jobs, BJ Barham and American Aquarium pushed all their chips to the center of the table, bet hard in a last dying gasp, and won. It’s the combination of propulsive, self-aware, and introspective songwriting with heavily punctuated almost punk-like delivery that makes American Aquarium such an inebriating and compelling experience. Since 2012 and Burn. Flicker. Die., personnel in this band has changed over 100% behind BJ Barham, and in some positions, 3 or 4 times over. But today, the songs are arguably delivered with even more punch, and are as searingly relevant as they were 10 years ago to the audience, if not even more.
American Aquarium is where you turn when the shit gets so thick, you question if you’ll make it out of the other side alive. That’s what American Aquarium were doing themselves on Burn. Flicker. Die., possibly illustrated best by the album’s epic middle track, the 6-minute “Jacksonville.”
The band’s subsequent albums are all worthy of your ear as well, including 2022’s Chicamacomico, even if the approach is more sedate, and the themes more mature. As time has gone on, American Aquarium has also turned slightly more country than they were in this mostly rock ‘n roll state in 2012. But for many, Burn. Flicker. Die. is where it all began, because at wit’s end, they laid it all out on the table, and lo and behold, it was that vulnerability and honesty that the world was hungry for.
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Personnel: BJ Barham – Vocals, Piano, Organ, Guitar // Bass – Bill Corbin // Drums – Kevin McClain // Jimmy Nutt – Lead Guitar // Chris Stamey – Organ // Wes Lachot – Pedal Steel Guitar // Whit Wright – Piano, Electric Piano // Spooner Oldham – Piano, Organ // Additional – Jason Isbell – Vocals // Amanda Shires, Caitlin Cary – Vocals, Violin