Usually when I’m reviewing vinyl records, I try to present my thoughts in a linear manner – from front to back, A-side through B-. In my mind, it just makes sense; unlike on CDs (where it’s really easy to jump around from song to song as a listener likes), records play best song-by-song and bands usually go out of their way to take that into account and create a progression through the album that way. Reviewing albums that way has served me well too – until American Aquarium upended the whole idea and effortlessly shook me to my foundations. Now, the band didn’t go and scatter greatness willy-nilly through the running of their newest album – they weren’t that unkind – but they did rip me apart with the B-side of Things Change when the focus of the album seemed to change dramatically when I flipped the disc.
“How’d they do that? What’d they do,” you ask?
Simply said, American Aquarium began the B-side of Things Change with the album’s title track and somehow managed to write the elements and sensations which have characterize the end of my marriage and the beginning of my divorce for the last few months. I can safely say that I am unfamiliar with everyone in the band but, listening to “Things Change” and the four other songs which support it on the B-side of the album, I was left with the distinct impression that they know me, somehow. There’s heartache and there’s loss and there’s an underlying sense of failure behind it all which feels more familiar than (I suspect) anyone could possibly feel comfortable with, and would be impossible for anyone who hasn’t gone through something like this to accurately understand. This has been the decline and demise of my marriage; word-for-word and note-for-note. When singer BJ Barham unloads lines like, “She was the one/ Who stood there by my side/ God knows that woman tried/ To make me better” and “I wasn’t well/ My will was anything but strong/ If there was a wrong turn to take/ I took it,” they simultaneously speak for me and hit me like a lead pipe across the back of the knees. It’s hard and it’s cold and his aim is true, and there isn’t a soul in all creation who hears it and has been in the same position that won’t feel it.
From there, the band just kept working me over; “Work Conquers All” sort of outlines my penchant for diving into work when presented with something I can’t handle in my personal life. The song title alone :I Gave Up Drinking (Before She Gave Up On Me)” pretty much sums up its place in this story (although the event far preceded both the decline and the end in my case). “Shadows Of You” (and dancing with them, as explained in the song’s lyric sheet) artfully outlines the inevitable collapse and the sensation of living alone in the aftermath, and then “’Til The Final Curtain Falls” gives up that same promise to be there, quietly in the dark when the dust has settled and there’s nothing left but that perfectly cold and hollow feeling that anyone who has ever been in this place remembers all too well, and never wants to visit again (outside of in a good song like this one) because it just hurts too much. After that, the needle lifts and the whole thing’s over everywhere but in the listener’s heart.
…And that’s how the record ends. Listeners familiar with this kind of emotional progression will know they have no choice other than to step back and breathe a bit, because it will have felt like that haven’t done that for the entire duration of the album’s B-side. In my case, I had to figure out how the hell I was going to write this review and have it make any sense at all – I hope I did. That said, I should point out that there are indeed some good songs on the A-side of Things Change, but the shining stars are the five songs which comprise the B-. For some of us, they hurt like hell – but after they’re heard, they are also the things that listeners will know they cannot be without.
(New West Records)