[1 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
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). This is a review of the 10th album from West Texas country rock outfit Old 97’s. But the parallels that run between Browne’s album and this one are apt, for Most Messed Up is a raucous record about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – loosely. While some are calling this a concept album, and while it is true that opening cut “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” is something of a manifesto for the group and its existence, and songs “Nashville” and “Wasted” – which form the nucleus or centrepieces of the album – are about trying to make it as a rock star, and, yes, there’s a lyrical reference to Runaround Sue (of Dion fame), Most Messed Up is also a record about heartache and heartbreak, despite a song here being called “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On”, and the threads of this being something more than it appears to be don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Still, that isn’t to say that Most Messed Up – with cover art of a cactus on fire slyly referencing the cactuses on the cover art for the group’s most beloved album, 1997’s Too Far to Care – isn’t a piece of art. Recorded live to the floor during a two-week period, Most Messed Up is practically energized and frantic, a real barn stormer of an LP. But calling it a bona-fide concept album may, may be a bit of a stretch.
You can’t deny, however, that “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, a celebration of the group’s some 20 odd years of existence, isn’t compelling. The title is a lyrical nod to those who may be too young and not know the band, a wink and a nudge towards Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, and the entire song is choc-a-bloc with quotable lyrics that fans will gleefully parse through for deeper meaning. “Rock ‘n’ roll has been very, very good to me,” sings Rhett Miller, frontman and primary songwriter, on the track, “the open road’s the only place I wanna be.” But the song is filled with self-doubting and loathing, and a cataloguing of all the weariness of road life from the pills right to the alcohol. “I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential / Most of this stuff should be kept confidential / But, ah, who even gives a fuck anymore? / You should know the truth, it’s both a blast and a bore.” Does this mean the end of Old 97’s? Let’s hope not. Most Messed Up is supercharged and full of pedal to the metal songs, augmented with the punky caterwauling of the Replacements, and it should come as no surprise that that band’s bassist, Tommy Stinson, guest stars on this statement.
This is a record that is not relentless in letting up on the gas pedal. “Give It Time” is a scorching country rocker, and follow-up “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On” is the kind of thing you’ll want to pump back beers to (preferably Pabst Blue Ribbons). “This Is the Ballad” (which is not a ballad) is another reckless song of youthful abandon, despite the fact that the band members are pretty much in middle-age. “Wheels Off” swerves all over the road, threatening to lose its balance, and is perhaps the most Replacements-like moment on the record. And the album doesn’t let up from there. The Mexico-flavoured “Gaudalajara” rides the surf guitar wave like something that could closely hew to the Pixies. “Ex of All You See” is another Stones-y swaggering rocker, and is a highlight among highlights. “Intervention” could be a paean to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle: “Drinking malt liquor / Smoking Menthols / Digging a hole / Climbing the walls.” And, of course, the album ends will Miller snarling “I am the most messed up motherfucker in this town.” Is he serious, or is it just a tongue firmly stuck in cheek? That mystery is part of the LP’s charm.
If anything, Most Messed Up plays like a hyperactive and less experimental version of Wilco’s 1996 semi-classic Being There. Throughout the album, Miller sings with the urgency of a Tom Petty – sounding remotely like that singer during the course of the proceedings. And, what’s more, this is an album that gets stronger and stronger the more you listen to it. It’s easy to get carried away with the swagger and cockiness that the Old 97’s parlay here. This is a remarkably strong album from front to back, and while one could quibble that there might have been the place for a bonafide ballad just to slow things down, this is as close to balls-to-the-wall country rock that you’ll get a handle on. Most Messed Up hardly reinvents the wheel, but it is pure unadulterated joy to listen to. While it may be a tad disappointing that the group didn’t ride the rock ‘n’ roll theme throughout the entire running length of the LP, it’s the kind of record that makes you want to applaud in wonderment. This is a scorching statement, full of fist-pumping anthems, and as far as this sort of thing goes, it is highly enjoyable. If anything, Most Messed Up proves that Old 97’s, after nearly 25 years of existence, are hardly running on empty. That it doesn’t directly follow the template set out by Browne might be a source of consternation and much hand-wringing, but there’s one thing that this record proves and it is this: country rock doesn’t get much better than this.