Old 97's: Most Messed Up (take 2)

If anything, Most Messed Up proves that Old 97’s, after nearly 25 years of existence, are hardly running on empty.

Old 97’s

Most Messed Up

Label: ATO
US Release Date: 2014-04-29
UK Release Date: 2014-04-29

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.