I better just fess up right from the start, so here goes: There is no way that anything I’m about to write regarding Rhett Miller’s self-titled solo album will adequately convey the way harmony and heartache meet with sharp wit, sweet woe and sly wordplay over a magnificent mixture of power pop hooks, harder rock riffs and tender folk ballads to perform the musical alchemy currently streaming from my speakers. But I can tell you that this record is wreckin’ me like a high speed chase on a hairpin turn!
Now in the interests of converting casual gawkers, comforting concerned supporters, assuring Miller’s admirers and generally pausing passers-by — and because it’s my job as your reviewer — I will attempt to explain why my soul skidded out on these sounds and how, now, my heart is a heap of hot metal on the side of the highway.
Rhett Miller, the follow up to 2006’s The Believer is Miller’s fourth solo album, and it again mines a pop music vein somewhat removed from the rootsy Texicana of his Old 97s work. It was recorded in Dallas and produced by Salim Nourallah, who also produced the most recent Old 97’s release, Blame It on Gravity. Though Miller is without his more familiar bandmates, this album features something of a who’s who of backing musicians, with Jon Brion on guitar and bass, John Dufilho of the Apples in Stereo on drums and the fabulous Billy Harvey on guitar, among others.
This set continues with Miller’s winning writing formula, which takes heavier subject matter and pairs it with buoyant, jangly pop melodies. He has that special knack for crafting sad songs that sound happy. According to Miller, this record, “takes that trick to the next level”, and it definitely does exactly that, with musical bright spots speeding past like oncoming headlights in the dark night of his lyrical landscape.
The opening track “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore” rushes head on into that night with pounding drums, driving guitars and urgent alliteration (“keyboards and keystrokes and keystones and keys”). “Like Love” doesn’t let up on the pedal, but the touch is a little lighter. Nourallah plays a lilting piano, as if over a driver’s shoulder, and the titular chorus just flies like miles. “Caroline” is at first unexpected, with its bass line-based tango beat, but it opens up into another irresistibly classic sing-along chorus of close harmonies plus chiming guitars that Miller makes the most of:
I am my own archenemy
I am my own archenemy
Oh and I would be devastated
‘Cause I feel like we could have made it
I am my own archenemy
I am my own archenemy”
“I Need to Know Where I Stand” takes the best of Miller’s syncopated, tongue tripping serial alliteration and combines it with sunny guitar, uplifting falsetto and supplication. “Kissing in a classroom on a campus on the coast after hours of analysis / I loved you first / Yeah, I loved you the most / Now it feels just like paralysis” leads in, and later the vocals lift off on the “please” and “need”. Another catchy chorus soon follows: “Would you please / Tell me if you can / Tell me if you can / ‘Cause I need / Yes, I need to know where I stand.”
“Happy Birthday Don’t Die”, with its lyrics doing the lifting off this time, is probably the strangest track on Rhett Miller. It’s a futuristic, sci-fi story of a cosmic centenarian who celebrates by ending her life. Weird, yes, but also sonically aggressive, lyrically ambitious and absolutely the very thing you will find yourself singing on the drive to work in the morning.
“Bonfire” slows the album’s acceleration a bit, downshifting into a quiet, delicate love song. It’s fragile from its first strums, even before Miller’s almost hesitant, but gorgeously plaintive voice breaks your heart singing, “The night is young / The sky is deep / For all we know the whole world’s asleep / We’ve got to let them go / The fire is hot, but your hand is cold / Let’s fall in love before we get old.” “Haphazardly” is also a heartbreaker (“This is what the house / Feels like / Without you in it / This is what the bed / Feels like / Without you in it.”) with mournfully ringing guitars and somber organ to match the tear in Miller’s vocal.
“If It’s Not Love” revs things up again with an arrangement featuring more than a hint of Buddy Holly gallop and guitar. Though the lyric bears more than a passing resemblance to something one might find on a Bright Eyes record, it’s infinitely more consistent than Conor Oberst has been in years. It’s a strong contender in the race for this album’s live favorite.
“Another Girlfriend” is something Miller says is the last thing he needs. He laments, “Two’s enough for me / Two’s enough / And you would make three,” but then admits eventually that they will soon be lovers anyway in a song that is one he originally submitted for Old 97s. It still has a loping, twangy atmosphere, but here it manages to avoid becoming the totally over-the-top parody the band may have made of it. Of course, considering that chorus, it’s obviously still a highly amusing track.
The last quarter of the album decelerates again, but that’s not to be construed as any sort of decline. “Refusing Temptation” builds lush layers of interwoven guitars and features a brushing of background vocals from Kristy Kruger. “Lashes” also lays on the layers, but with the hushed-and-haunting harmonies courtesy of Paul Averitt. “I could live on your love / And nothing else if I had to,” they whisper on the lush lullaby.
“Sometimes”, an acoustic song with SampleTron accompaniment, closes the set. It’s another lullaby, and it’s about, again, love and lonely times (“Sometimes / The only thing you have is a song”). If it happens to be one from Rhett Miller, you can forget that you’re lonely, consider yourself lucky and just sing along, but please, try to keep your eyes on the road.