The return-to-roots exercise that is The Dreamer isn't bad; it just seems unnecessary.
The release of Rhett Miller's fourth solo outing The Dreamer closely coincides with a similarly-minded LP: John Mayer's pseudo-rootsy Born and Raised. Both find artists taking humbler approaches to their music, without any grandiose experimentation or theatrics. They are also, to some extent, "country" records, though Born and Raised is more 70's California rock than country, and The Dreamer sticks to the alt-country Miller is so familiar with. But while Mayer's newest is a depiction of a city slicker picking out the most expensive cowboy-looking clothes from a top-end Western store, Miller's boot heels are comfortably worn in. The three recordings preceding The Dreamer were much poppier than anything Miller had done with his mainstay, the Old 97's, but they also didn't abandon the country stylings the Austin-born songwriter excels at. Miller doesn't need to traverse the boundary between country singer and singer/songwriter; he does both quite admirably.
All this aside, from a quick glance at the sleeve art you might think Miller is up to business as usual. The name follows The Instigator (2002) and The Believer (2006) in having a "The _____" title, returning to the pattern broken by his self-titled (2009). (Technically, his first solo record is 1989's Mythologies, but it's been long out of print.) The cover features Miller's handsome visage, staring intensely into the distance, though you could make the case that it looks like he's stalking someone. Though he's now forty-one, there's a wide-eyed youthfulness both to Miller himself and to his music, the same youthfulness that made "Come Around" such a compelling single ten years ago. But what has made Miller such an intriguing, and in my view underrated, songwriter is his creativity. Any of his solo efforts could be classified as "alt-country," though the genre name isn't entirely apt. He's had stadium-worthy rock riffs, introspective acoustic pontifications, and, in the case of The Instigator's "The El", a menacing twang. Miller as a solo artist isn't miles removed from his main projects, nor is he leagues removed. He takes what makes his music so successful in one arena and incorporates it with other stylistics in another.
That skill of his is what makes The Dreamer a peculiar album. This is a "return to the basics" experiment of the first order; all of the tracks are straightforward cuts of alt-rock with a dash of indie. (Miller, though a convincing country musician, has a voice more akin to the indie camp.) The instrumental palette is simple, usually involving acoustic and electric guitars, a steel guitar, bass, and drums. Everything sounds great; unfortunately, very little of it sounds challenging. There isn't anything inherently wrong with going back to the fundamentals; for some artists, it may even be necessary. For Miller, though, it isn't; there were never any indications he was veering too far from his wheelhouse, nor was it the case that his music was becoming stale. If anything, Rhett Miller was the best thing since The Instigator, in my mind his greatest artistic statement. The Dreamer doesn't sound like a desperately needed return to the well, like Born and Raised does for Mayer; it instead sounds like a very accomplished musician having a breezily good time. The music's tuneful as anything he's ever done, yes, but it lacks the punch of his best stuff.
Still, for fans of Miller or the Old '97's this is definitely worth checking out. His lyrics are as witty as ever; the line "She had a prominent nose / She took off all her clothes" may sound ridiculous when taken out of context, but the fact it works in "Sleepwalkin'" is a testament to Miller's lyricism. Equally as strong as these quotables is the music itself, which makes up for its simplicity with its great hooks. The Margaritaville shuffle of "This Summer Lie" is a must for beach playlists, as is the quiet, unaccompanied acoustic strummer "Marina". Best of all is "Swimmin' in Sunshine," which starts off as an an optimistic ode, only to then build into an introspective bridge with the simple but poignant plea, "What do I know about love?" Here Miller uses the campfire-chorus backing that made "Terrible Vision", the final cut off of The Instigator", so memorable. It's moments like these that reveal the glimmers of Miller's genius amidst the uncharacteristically laid-back songwriting that doesn't fully demonstrate his talent.
In the end, the return-to-roots exercise that is The Dreamer isn't bad; it just seems unnecessary. This is a good album; on a song by song basis, I'd even venture to say it's great. But given what Miller has shown us in the past, this can't help but feel like second-rate. He demonstrates here his ability to write a great alt-country song, but we already knew that about him. The Dreamer is not the sound of a complete 180, but it also isn't the sound of Miller moving forward artistically.