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Review: Rhett Miller Delivers Hooky, Plainspoken Confessionals on ‘The Messenger’

Old 97s frontman gets unsparingly nostalgic

Rhett Miller performs at Stubb's Bar-B-Q on June 8, 2017 in Austin, Texas.

Rhett Miller performs at Stubb's Bar-B-Q on June 8, 2017 in Austin, Texas.

Rick Kern/Getty Images

Rhett Miller was a folkie of sorts before co-launching country-punk-pop heroes Old ‘97s, and befitting a Texan raised in country music’s cradle, he’s got a knack for perfectly-turned lines. “Did I lose you at ‘I love you’?,” he sings on his latest solo set, as immaculately plainspoken as a Harlan Howard or pre-LSD Beatles song. Yet Miller can also be a surly man of his times: “Permanent Damage” is a fuck-you to a tedious storyteller that declares “Nobody wants to hear about your stupid dream,” and sneeringly rhymes “super deep” with “go back to sleep.”

Like his prior solo LPs (The Instigator, The Dreamer, The Believer, The Traveler), The Messenger highlights Miller’s writing uncoupled from the speeding locomotive of the ‘97s, and the vibe this time is especially reflective. “I Used To Write In Notebooks” is a Beatle-esque chronicle of time’s passage via technology and personal psychology; in similar spirit, “Close Most of The Time” dissects life from age 17 to 29 via cars (including a white ’69 Ranchero that “almost ran”) and similarly dysfunctional relationships. It’s the unsparing sound of a dude of a certain age looking in the mirror, and the fact the album is framed by first person mea-culpas titled “Total Disaster” and “Broken,” respectively, tells you all you need to know about what said dude sees. To his credit, he owns every bit of it, and as confessionals, they’re so hooky and well-calibrated, they feel like absolutions even when they don’t sell themselves as such. One imagines it’s been informed by years of therapy. If so, the shrinks certainly earned their fees, and Miller’s songwriting’s the richer for it.


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