"I am the most messed up motherfucker in this town," snarls Rhett Miller, frontman and primary songwriter for the Old 97's for almost a quarter century. It's not true, of course — there's always a little wink when he's singing — but it sure feels like it could be true as you listen to this blistering masterpiece of a rock'n'roll record. The truth is that this terrific West Texan band have rarely sounded less messed up in their career.
Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller has spent the past two decades drawing up character studies of the heartbroken, the drunken and the depraved. In the band’s early days it was easy for Miller to write about the goings-on of a budding rock star, but as time wore on, the characters became just that—although perhaps thinly veiled versions of himself. “I guess there’s an element of autobiography with the debauchery that happens in the songs,” Miller told me a few years ago.
In 1977, Jackson Browne dropped what might be the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll album about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Recorded live, and on tour busses and in hotel rooms, the album practically seethes of the drugs, the groupies and the roadies that populate road life. But this isn’t a review about Running on Empty – as great as it might be (and if you haven’t heard it, go now and check it out).
“We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive,” Rhett Miller sings on the opening, near six minute track that is often brutal in its honesty of the trials and tribulations of the rock and roll lifestyle. And he should know since the band’s ATO debut heralds its 20th year in the business. Considering their modest success, that’s a remarkable run for the Dallas quartet.
On this most Old 97's-ish of Old 97's LPs, the hard-partying twang-punk quartet throw a 20th-birthday bash for themselves. In the tradition of boozy anniversaries, it begins with a victory speech: "Longer Than You've Been Alive" pays tribute to "20 good years of about 25," confessing, "Our jobs are all jobs/And sometimes they suck." Then it's yet another round of airtight songs celebrating life-as-sublime-train-wreck amid music that conjures the British Invasion landing in a Texas barroom. Special guest Tommy Stinson adds a shot of Replacements-style chaos to the mix, notably on "Let's Get Drunk & Get It On" – a balls-out anthem that sums up the 97's religion perfectly.
"We've been doin' this longer than you've been alive/Propelled by some mysterious drive …" With those words pondering the ups and downs of their career, the Old 97's kick off their tenth studio album, and if this band sounds older and just a bit wiser 20 years on from their first full-length, Most Messed Up is the album where they happily cop to their status as rock & roll lifers, and this set plays like the work of a veteran band in the best of all possible ways. After the ambitious scope of the Grand Theatre albums and the poppier tone of Blame It on Gravity, Most Messed Up sounds casual and easygoing while also getting back to the basics of the Old 97's approach -- this sounds like the band rolled in, hit record, and let it rip, and the final product is tight, raucous, and the hardest rockin' set of tunes these guys have offered up since 1999's Fight Songs. Dropping occasional f-bombs, frequently celebrating the virtues of booze, and offering to take his gal to a cheap hotel for a wild night, Rhett Miller sounds like he's on a tear with his buddies and loving every moment of it, while Ken Bethea's guitar is fittingly ragged and roaring, exploring the space between twang and bark, and bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples keep the show rolling forward with the implacable honky tonk swing that's been their trademark for years.
Twenty years is a long time. Go ahead and think about what you were doing in 1994. Things were a bit different then. So different, in fact, that looking back on that mid-‘90’s era feels at times like peering into some distant time capsule that exists now only in the dusty photo albums and crispy yellowed newsprint of the pre-internet age.
Rhett Miller occasionally watches the clock when he’s onstage. That’s just one of the revelations he makes on “Longer Than You’ve been Alive”, the opening track from the Old 97's’ ninth album, Most Messed Up. He also fesses up to washing down “mountains of weed, a handful of pills” with “oceans and oceans” of booze. “None the hard stuff, that shit kills.” He jumps off risers he shouldn’t even attempt to climb at his age, bickers with the other guys in the band like they’re old married couples, and still sometimes dreams of being the kind of rock star that simply can’t exist in today’s industry.
“Rock ’n’ roll’s been very, very good to me,” observes Rhett Miller on “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” the retrospective lead-off track to the new Old 97s album that surveys the band’s quarter-century of existence (“20 good years of about 25,” quips Miller) in a sprawling six minutes. But lest anyone think that Miller and company have gone nostalgic or Americana, the ensuing 11 tracks put that notion to rest. “Most Messed Up” is a full-blown, album-length expression of the Old 97s’ vintage, railroad-beat careen stripped of all embellishments, with Miller singing about substances (“The Disconnect”), substance-fueled hookups (“Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On”), substance abuse (“Intervention”) — and affirming the band life.
Rhett Miller’s got two things down: love and nausea. Miller has spent 20-plus years fronting the Old 97’s, and the sprawling ruckus of the band’s liquor-soaked decades is summed up succinctly in the group’s umpteenth album Most Messed Up. Since the early ’90s, the alt-country group from Dallas has been continuously churning out some of the most off-kilter cowpoke crunk.
Old 97's Most Messed Up (ATO) Rhett Miller exhales prior to jumping into the raison d'etre for Most Messed Up, opener "Longer Than You've Been Alive. " In that breath, one can almost hear his Dallas fab four's double decade of recording. Then he leaps into the song's tumbling verses, underlined by, "We've been doing this longer than you've been alive/ Twenty good years, what about 25?" This 10th studio disc splays a far cry from both volumes of 2010/11 opus The Grand Theatre, because past its christening Dylanesque by way of Todd Snider – Miller echoing Tom Petty's hard consonants – it's all lyrically downhill across party anthems ("Wasted"), fuck songs ("Let's Get Drunk & Get It On"), drug shrugs ("The Disconnect") and antidotes ("Intervention"), plus a token "This Is the Ballad.