When Rhett Miller is fronting his alt-country band the Old 97s, he is many things: Texan sex God, drunken lonesome cowboy, hopeless romantic. He is magnetic and charming, his band relentless and gritty. Rhett Miller solo is something else. He retains his charm and good looks, but the grit and mischief are gone. He is more Elton John than Johnny Cash, and the dirt and sweat of the Old 97s is replaced by so much polish it could cause blindness. From Rhett’s brooding photos in a velvet suit to the album’s clear, right-angled guitars, his second solo record, The Believer (his first, The Instigator, was released in 2002), is all studio sheen and mature, radio-ready pop. “You can tell it to the radio/Tell it to the television,” he sings in the Old 97s-penned “Singular Girl,” “They are not listening/They are only machines.” Lyrics like this imply that Rhett doesn’t give a damn about commercial success, but The Believer nonetheless feels like he’s either lusting after the mainstream pop world or being held hostage by his producer.
“Singular Girl” is one of the finer tracks on the album, partly because it was originally written and recorded with the Old 97s in 2000 as an outtake from Satellite Rides (the demo was released on a bonus CD with select copies). So perhaps the anti-commercial sentiment expressed therein is indeed long forgotten. Miller’s decision to include “Singular Girl” and “Question,” a popular song from the same album, on The Believer is perplexing. He teases us with these snippets of greatness, but instead of perfecting them, he tosses them into the studio machine and turns them into mechanical hits. The original “Question” was beautiful and understated, a simple song about a man proposing that bordered on cheesy. But it’s a fine, aged cheddar compared to the microwaved Cheez Whiz of the new version, complete with plunkety piano and swelling strings. Perhaps Miller wanted to demonstrate a newfound maturity, or emphasize his band’s place in the songwriting canon, but most likely he wanted to resurrect his most accessible material for a shot at commercial success. This seems unnecessary and exploitative, however, and undermines Miller’s confidence in his solo work.
The album opens with a slew of mediocre, bouncy rockers that glide like butter through their formulas. “Help Me, Suzanne,” is a bit too similar to The Instigator’s pop charmer “This Is What I Do,” and “I Believe She’s Lying” is frighteningly close to being a Gin Blossoms tune. “Fireflies,” a duet with sultry songstress Rachel Yamagata, is the hands-down best song on the album, suggesting that Miller really does need a fellow songwriter to bring out his passion. A wrenching country riff swells like a humid night as Miller and Yamagata sing riveting lyrics like, “I’m gonna sleep on the train tracks/It’s gonna be a peaceful night/Then it’s gonna get rough,” and the chorus: “Never say/You’ll never leave/‘Cause you’ll never know ‘til you try/In a jar/Fireflies/Only last for one night.” This is the Rhett we know and love, and I find myself begging him not to disappear. “Singular Girl” hangs onto a bit of him, but is too smooth to be as good as the original demo and leaves out some of its best lyrics (“You’ve got the teeth of the hydra upon you”).
“The Believer” is the song the album centers around, and Miller composed it for his friend, the late Elliott Smith. He also weaves in the pain of his own teenage suicide attempt. The song begins with a quiet and intriguing verse, but unfortunately sails into modern rock guitars, ruining the gentle affect of the lyrics. It’s not entirely Miller’s fault; you get the sense that no one he was working with on this record was into the “less is more” idea. But it’s a damn shame, because Miller is a good singer, a clever lyricist, and a master of melody. The Believer would never have been as fun as an Old 97s record, but even if recorded just on a 4-track, this album could really be something. Unfortunately, the music gets bogged down with strings and other symptoms of overproduction. That is, in a nutshell, the problem with pop music these days. The studios can’t let it speak for itself, so it ends up not speaking at all. Remember this next time, Rhett: they aren’t listening, they’re only machines.