The Old 97’s have released their theological album. Or at least you might think so glancing at song titles like “Jesus Loves You” and “Good With God”. After 2014’s hard-livin’-and-proud rock ‘n’ roll, the band paused to dig into some spirituality? Well, no, but with Graveyard Whistling, they’ve taken the time to put together their best album since the first volume of The Grand Theatre by getting back to their mix of country and rock.
Primary songwriter Rhett Miller takes a bit of a look at faith in those two tracks, but he puts his twist on the explorations. “Jesus Loves You” provides a seduction romp with words somewhere between Robert Herrick and Billy Joel. Miller’s singer tries to get a good Christian girl into bed while she isn’t quite having it. The argument’s simple: Jesus is a good guy, sure (“He’s got the power, and the glory / He’s got a pretty kickass story”), but I’m right here and ready to go. It’s an old line, but Miller’s wit makes it funnier than it should be, but there’s just a bit of menace at the edges.
“Good With God” lets Miller have a chat with the supreme being, here voiced by Brandi Carlile. Miller’s quick-talking character denies (to himself) having regrets, even while wondering what might be going on in God’s mind. Carlile enters: “You should be scared / I’m not so nice.” The contrast of Carlile’s imminent power and Miller’s uncertain slyness makes for a dark night where Ken Bethea’s guitar offers as much worry as a plea.
The spiritual concerns—with tongue in cheek—come up again in one of the album’s two drinking songs, “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls”. The song sounds about like you think it would given the title, with some wordplay pointing both to Jay-Z and ? and the Mysterians. Its partner “Drinkin’ Song” is fun enough, too, with its chorus seemingly written to go along with Miller’s forearm-swinging guitar style in concert.
Both songs point to the one complaint fair enough to levy against the disc: the Old 97’s know what they’re doing, and some of what they do is simply write and play Old 97’s songs. They’re so good at it, that it hardly registers as a complaint, but neither of those tracks shows either the wit or pathos that the band has so often captured previously. Likewise “Bad Luck Charm”, while leaning a little toward a Miller solo sound, doesn’t break new ground. We get it: good alt-country fronted by a guy you probably shouldn’t date.
That said, Miller’s clever writing, the band’s energy, and the album’s melodies overcome the songs that cover old ground. “All Who Wander” slows the album’s pace and adds some atmospherics. It’s a relatively straightforward song, but it carries a remarkably catchy chorus. On an album willing to rock, this track anchors the explorations. There’s a void to be filled; in a world where “signals and wires both get crossed,” nothing’s easy. Wandering leads to bad relationships, comically bad wooing attempts, and hidden regrets. None of that means it’s a waste. Miller “must sleep ‘neath sheets of rain” in his emotional journeying, and that lostness colors an album that’s fun enough to hide some of the gray.
The Old 97’s have never shied from that internal gray, but it’s never kept them from having a good time, either. Graveyard Whistling is a fitting title and apt image. It’s the work of a band finding complexity in apparent basics, and depth within its play.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More