The first 47 minutes of American Aquarium's third LP, Dances for the Lonely, are wasted wondering what happened to the bright-eyed if emotionally chafed alt.country band that seemed so promising on last year's The Bible & The Bottle. On that second full-length, frontman B.J. Barham managed to balance the heart on his sleeve with the smile on his face. He romanticized big cities and unexplored American reaches, drank booze and ran his mouth, fell in love and got knocked down. Barham was finally beginning to peal away from the near-plagiarism of his No Depression forebears, too, and his songwriting, backing band and voice had, at last, found a space to share. His unbound earnestness was inviting.
On Dances, though, it's difficult to hear Barham as much more than the sleazy rock 'n' roll huckster about which parents warn their children. His bipolar band now rollicks or sulks like Springsteen's, and he's the leading music man rolling through town, a bitter boy whose heart has been broken by a golden girl back home. From show to show, he's looking to drown his feelings in booze and bury whatever's left in some young female fan. Predatory and creepy, he boasts about beer and fulfilled lust with an 18-year-old on "PBR Promenade," and he buys a working Georgia girl named Katherine Bell drinks until he goes home with her on the opener. It's cool, though: To paraphrase verse one, she totally wanted it.
And that's the thing. Barham consistently blames these girls for enabling his desires, casting them as cheap, tawdry tramps looking for nothing but a good time with the boy on stage: "They're all the same at heart/ they're just going through the motions/ They'll call you handsome if you buy them a drink," he sings on the husky Boss lift "Downtown Girls," his voice grizzly over an acoustic guitar. "I can tell she's trouble from the very start/ So I bit my tongue and I played my part ... She's into kissing boys/ She's into playing games," he recounts on The Hold Steady-swiped "Mary, Mary," his voice excitable over peppy piano and guitar. Barham never allows that his lust might not be their problem, but his. He's just the good ol' boy playing the role, and he's too dizzy for self-reflection, anyway. All told, it's hypermasculine minstrelsy from a guy trying to hold it together for crowds in Arkansas and Alabama by playing triumphant bar-band rock (more E-Street than Whiskeytown) featuring stories about someone he "met" last night and left this morning.
Such brashness and self-pity swallow Barham's hard-won, developing acumen and awareness as a writer. The pick-up lines he supplies for the drunk-and-fuck songs sound like frat boy parody. Seriously, baby, what'll it be: "Let's go swimming in our underwear" or "What do you say we go back to your house? You ain't Miss Right, but you're Miss Right Now"? Barham mixes metaphors and indulges in clichés, invoking bright lights, lighthouses and the respective wrong sides of beds and towns because, ostensibly, he's too busy putting something somewhere it shouldn't be instead of putting his mind to songwriting. That's what he wants us to believe, anyway.
Throughout, though, Barham offers a smattering of clues as to why this is happening: He misses someone at home, and she—now with a new boyfriend—could care less. On "City Lights," one of the record's few moments of value, this sadness works. His voice is damaged, and his acoustic guitar is plaintive. In less-shaky hands (Barham's inspiration Craig Finn, perhaps?), this could be a smart construct for an album, where the bedroom bedlam of a touring musician slowly reveals his neurotic, wounded core. But Barham isn't working that hard. Instead, his blame-everyone-else attitude prevents reconciliation: "So I hear you got a new boy/ He looks a lot like me/ I bet he can't sing like me," he sneers, laughably. "You fuck like a woman/ But you love just like a little girl," he exclaims, taking classic Dylan for a regrettable spin into a very deep ditch.
During the album's closing 30 seconds, Barham finally sounds exhausted, worn weary by his sexual odyssey. His voice cracks over a piano. "So much has changed in a year," he musters on repeat. And that's what's worst: This limpid interpretation of Springsteen rock doesn't behoove American Aquarium, and the touring badass image doesn't work for Barham, a romantic Carolinian who let a broken heart, deliberate debauchery and neglectful self-pity get the best of his band's chance for a breakthrough.