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Veteran alt-country band lets loose, musically and lyrically

Old 97's_Most Messed Up cover.jpg
Midway through the leadoff track on the new Old 97’s album, Rhett Miller reveals that this particular song is unusually revealing.

“I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential/Most of these things should be kept confidential,” Miller states on “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” the almost-six-minute reflection/career confessional that begins Most Messed Up (ATO Records), before adding, “But who even gives half a f— anymore?”

If Miller isn’t comfortable focusing his songs on himself, the alt-country mainstays’ principal singer and songwriter has a strange way of showing it. Because that very song finds him rattling off many of the perks and inglorious aspects of his band’s two-plus decades as club-hopping rockers, including “oceans and oceans” of booze (though it’s not clear which category that falls into — more on that later) and biting observations such as “(the) dressing room looks about as good as it smells.”

Miller’s narrative peels back the curtain on his band’s sometimes road-weary existence, and it also seems like a preview/warning of what is to come on Most Messed Up; for after such a personal statement for an album opener, Miller and Co. must forgive the listener for inferring that the 11 tunes that follow — full of blunt, unflattering observations, a bevy of references to alcohol and pill intake, and, in a new twist for these squeaky-clean 40-something fellas, rampant, tossed-off profanities — would seem to indicate that the many confused, boozed-up, love-struck nervous wrecks who have populated the Old 97’s songbook all these years just might have been somewhat autobiographical, after all.

What is clear is that this is the sound of a band letting loose, musically and lyrically, on what amounts to the soundtrack of a break-neck rock ’n’ roll bender. Even for a band that has spent the past 20-plus years churning out its share of tunes about wrongheaded love affairs, anxiety and depression, and stiff drinks (and sometimes all three), often set to the group’s tuneful, revved-up, guitar-pop-meets-Texas-twang-shuffles, this disc finds the Old 97’s setting new standards both for their protagonists’ dysfunction and disillusionment, while remaining stunningly effective at making songs about such potentially unhinged folks so darn catchy and enjoyable.

This time around, the material is spiked with upbeat tempos, louder, crunchier guitars from Miller, Ken Bethea a cameo-ing Tommy Stinson of The Replacements, and, of course, those stubborn substances, which are closely intertwined with the dalliances described throughout the album. “We went drinking at the Roosevelt/We took something and we started to melt,” a giddy Miller sings on “Wheels Off,” before assuring not-so-convincingly, “This is love.” On “The Disconnect,” there seems to be an admission of overconsumption, but no real concern for its hazy effects: “I’ve been gone as long as I can recollect, and the real world isn’t that real anyway.”
The unabashed low-brow details aren’t limited to drink and drugs, however. There’s also the raging horndog factor. Many years ago, the Old 97’s gave us the almost-charming tune “Buick City Complex,” about someone worried that his regular between-the-sheets romps might not continue now that his partner’s apartment building is being leveled. Miller summed up that desire succinctly, playfully and even a bit innocently with the refrain of “Do you wanna mess around?” Here, however, no dirty details are spared on the decidedly more forward “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On,” in which Miller lays out the bare-bones scene of an interstate motel rendezvous: “It’s got a rotten view, but the ice is free.” Furthermore, the singer lets us know his partner in this tryst is not exactly a prize by tossing her the half-compliment, “You got a gorgeous face but it’s a little odd.”

Clearly, the band has shunned sweetness and subtlety here, so it’s no surprise that things eventually turn a bit ornery. Growling guitars strike a defiant tone on “Intervention,” which precedes the album’s last call, as it were: the title track, a ramshackle rocker that finds a wild, wobbly Miller blurting out: “I’m so far gone, I can never get found/I am the most messed up mother—— in this town.”

Given the sordid particulars that the Old 97’s delve into over the course of Most Messed Up, it’s hard to disagree with him on that point. But remember, it could just be the booze talking.

— By George Henn