Twenty years in, alt-country legends turn up the volume and sneer at the messiness of life's ordeals.
Twenty years is a long time. Go ahead and think about what you were doing in 1994. Things were a bit different then. So different, in fact, that looking back on that mid-‘90’s era feels at times like peering into some distant time capsule that exists now only in the dusty photo albums and crispy yellowed newsprint of the pre-internet age. You can YouTube old clips from that time, but man, they’re tough to watch and focus on with their standard-definition grainy resolution and wavy feed. It’s overwhelming at times to think back on, and I’m not quite to the age where it’s appropriate to spend portions of each day waxed in the glow of nostalgia.
Twenty years ago, I was in the midst of my high school years, still a little bit shy of discovering the Old 97’s, the hopped-up punk-country outfit from Dallas, Texas, who trafficked in equal parts Beatles, Clash, and Merle Haggard. By the time I came around, they were two or three albums into their career (compact discs(!) that I quickly purchased at my local record store in those pre-download days), but they quickly had me hooked. Over these ensuing years, I’ve happily stumbled through a countless number of their live shows, sang their praises to novices, and lost myself in their surprisingly reliably released discography. It’s hard for any band to stay together for long, and this is especially true for those that have haven’t had the Top 40 hits or benefitted from massive radio play (such things existed in the ‘90s). For most bands, millions weren’t made and the ubiquity of a hit single eluded. So, what keeps the brave few going forward, soldiering on through the grind of songwriting, recording, and the requisite touring?
In the case of the Old 97’s, and their four members -- Rhett Miller, Murry Hammond, Ken Bethea, and Philip Peeples -- it appears the answer lies in genuine friendship, a commitment to the craft, and the opportunity being in a band affords its members to raise some hell every now and then. Miller addresses these reasons head on in the lead-off track to Most Messed Up, their tenth studio album and first in three years. In “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, he meticulously details the competing interests and quizzical nature of life in rock and roll; the thrills, rushes, and tedium that are constantly balanced and managed, the push and pull of the job, and the inner monologue that can sometimes threaten to push the whole thing off the rails. “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive / Propelled by some mysterious drive / And they still let me do it as weird as that seems / And I do it most nights again in my dreams." It’s a nearly six-minute assessment of a life that maybe hasn’t been lived the prettiest, but for better or for worse, has definitely been lived the most honest. It’s a sentiment that sets the tone for the remainder of the album as Miller eschews some of the prettier edges that have been touchstones of some of the band’s more recent work and opts instead to drive the proceedings right into the raw, dark underbelly.
The album’s next eleven tracks accurately reflect the title, as its’ characters drink their way to oblivion, lust after seductive temptresses, and generally flip the bird to anything that resembles stability and safety, all while employing numerous and creative uses of the F-bomb that would’ve earned this album’s cover the dreaded black and white “Explicit” sticker had it been released back in that long-ago, previously mentioned ‘90’s timeframe. In press interview promoting the album, Miller has focused on his desire to roughen up the edges and weed out some of the sunnier, softer sentiments that often populate his writing. Whether there’s some elements of his personal life influencing this decision, or if it’s just a writing exercise designed to reawaken the band’s hard-edged roots, there’s no denying the intensity of this listen. It’s not the Old 97’s fans have grown accustomed to hearing in recent years.
However, for all of its aggression and bluster, for all of its profane proclamations, and for all of Miller’s possible motivations and hang-ups, the end result is still an Old 97’s record. There are the bleeding Ken Bethea guitar solos, the frantically chugging basslines and high, lonesome harmonies of Hammond, and the steady backbeat of Peeples’ propulsive drumming. Miller’s lyrics are full of his usual canny observations and tragically comic turns of phrase: (“I built castles out of sand / I didn’t understand / Why everything I planned ran like whiskey off my hand / And my hands are never clean”). There are certain songs-“Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” and “Guardalajara”, in particular-that are bound to be live staples for years to come, and others-“Wheels Off” and “Intervention”-that probably could have been bounced from the final track listing. And, as a bit of a bummer, Hammond has conceded much of the songwriting to Miller, and offers only one track, “The Ex Of All You See” rather than his customary few. With the hardened direction and the frenetic arrangements, the band takes a cathartic and refreshing approach to the music, but they’re not exactly pressing the reset button on the signature Old 97’s sound.
And that’s a good thing, because as technology moves forward and people change, it’s good to have some constants to reassuringly center us and serve as anchors through the turbulent waters of growth and maturation. The Old 97’s serve that purpose and prove that one need not lose their jagged edge or completely abandon their sense of adventure in the process. If the four gentlemen have it in them, we wouldn't object to seeing them thrash around the country’s live music haunts for at least another 20 more years.