"Pretty soon I'll hit bottom, but at least I've enjoyed the ride," BJ Barham sings during "Harmless Sparks," which rests in relative peace at the middle of American Aquarium's new album. It's a simple, minimal song—two verses and a one-line chorus set to quiet acoustic strums and steady bass, with careful, tasteful touches of piano, organ, strings and pedal steel. It's probably the best thing American Aquarium has ever recorded.
Longtime fans who treasure the group's barroom-rock ragers might beg to differ, but those staples, of which there are several on Burn. Flicker. Die., tend to blend together in the end, like rippling waves in one long and largely drunken blur. "Harmless Sparks," however, dares to dream a different direction; whether this was the band's own call or that of producer Jason Isbell is unclear, but it works primarily because Barham abandons all pretense as a singer. What's left is nothing but the truth.
That's not the case everywhere on Burn. Flicker. Die., an album that too often finds the band obsessing over its own demise. "We're playing a game we know we'll never win," Barham declares on "Casualties," a hard-luck tale of an act realizing they're not destined for stardom. On "Saturday Nights," the final track, American Aquarium's way out is to "strike a match, sit back and watch the whole thing come tumbling down." On "Jacksonville," Barham is resigned to "spend the rest of my days with poison in my veins." And on the title track, the band makes a mantra of the title line: "We burn too long, we flicker and die." They repeat it 12 times at the song's end, though it's not a particularly potent or poetic lyric. It's all a bit much, after awhile; you want to hear these guys fight to live, rather than try to sell the notion that all they want to do is be left for dead.
That they want more as artists is evident, anyway, for they avail themselves of more intriguing avenues on several occasions. What "Jacksonville" lacks in lyrical originality, for instance, it makes up for in studio creativity. After gradually building to a noisy crescendo in the last of its six minutes, the song screeches to a halt, forgoing the typical fade for a hit-the-wall finish that sets up the hushed "Harmless Sparks" perfectly.
They make another really smart call in rescuing "Abe Lincoln," a hidden gem by Chip Robinson, lifted from the obscurity of the Backsliders album on which it surfaced back in 1999. "You're fading slow, like a bloodstain on my sleeve" is the kind of line Barham excels at delivering. Even if he's not often capable of writing one that vivid himself (yet), his ability to spot and interpret a worthy cover serves the band well. For American Aquarium, there's a lesson to be learned from Robert Earl Keen, who was a good enough writer to be covered by Waylon, Willie and Joe Ely but also smart enough in the studio to supplement his own songs with definitive turns on tunes by James McMurtry and Terry Allen.
The band's characteristic shout-along, swig-along numbers still shape the bulk of Burn. Flicker. Die. With its anthemic recollections of "saltwater summer and landlocked nights down at Slim's," the tune "St. Mary's" strikes at the heart of the road-tested American Aquarium aesthetic, as does "Savannah Almost Killed Me," starring the obligatory girl at the bar who "knew every word to 'Born to Run.'"
At this point, though, the more turns off the beaten path this band takes, the better shot they have to survive and prosper. Despite what they sing here, they don't have to be "just a casualty of rock 'n' roll."