The first couplet of "Gone Long Gone"—the penultimate track of Smalltown Hymns, American Aquarium's fourth album—reads like the record's thesis statement: "I spent my whole life running from the truth/ I blamed it on the women and I blamed it on the booze." You could call it an epiphany for frontman BJ Barham, whose songs have long been fueled by scorn cast toward the scores of barroom girls with whom he's fallen in love, at least in song. "Gone Long Gone" is the sound of Barham growing up, turning bitter self-pity into mature reflection, and it spreads across Smalltown Hymns.
If you think Barham's totally letting those Southern sirens off the hook, don't fret: He alternately equates women to pernicious vipers on "Rattlesnake" and to both raging storms and angry colonies of wasps on "Hurricane." But even then, he still gives credit where credit's due, referring to the snake as a "glorious mistake." Instead of taking aim at others, the once brash singer now properly takes some of the blame himself.
Given that lyrical deviation, it might seem surprising that Hymns is Barham's most consistent and cohesive batch of tunes yet. Despite releasing four albums in five years, this band's output can be anything but steady—both in the spurts in which it comes and the quality that results. These 10 tracks, almost entirely written and recorded in a month's time, seem to be part of a whole. Reverting back to his storytelling strengths, Barham paints a picture-perfect image of his smalltown Carolina upbringing on "Reidsville," describing the Ford and Chevy muscle cars that stretch across the streets of his hometown on a Friday night and the hopeful high school sweethearts that fill them.
For the first time, Barham successfully experiments with portraying characters. "Brother, Oh Brother" speaks of a rifle-toting soldier who struggles with the war he fights. It's hardly groundbreaking for songwriters at large, but it's certainly refreshing to hear Barham handle a new topic. "Water in the Well" is his crowning achievement, a dark divulgence written from the eyes of a Southern patriarch who sees suicide as the solution over salvation after losing possession of his inherited farmland.
Though Hymns is the closest American Aquarium has come to a singer-songwriter record—and indeed, songwriting is the focus of the album—calling it such would be a major disservice to the six fellows backing Barham. Where last year's Dances for the Lonely crackled with live-wire energy and bombastic bar-band arrangements, Hymns is the balance between 2008's lush The Bible and the Bottle and its understated companion EP, Bones. Whether it's the gentle arcs of pedal steel and organ upon which "Hurricane" and "Gone Long Gone" ride or the careful interplay of violin, mandolin and banjo that frames "Brother, Oh Brother," each member plays the role that fits the piece here.
Sure, not all of American Aquarium's hard-won fans will love Smalltown Hymns—particularly those who live only to sing along to "I Hope He Breaks Your Heart," the sneering anthem they've alternately dubbed "The Whore Song." But Hymns finds American Aquarium again gaining traction as both Barham and his boys rein in their rowdiness, realizing that along with a dose of perspective, less can be a lot more.