For nearly 10 years, Rhett Miller and his band Old 97’s have defied simple categorization. Alt-country? Sure, in that they don’t play the typical gag inducing country-pop-lite that engulfs the charts on a weekly basis. Americana? Sure, in that they can evoke the seedy bars or the desolate streets of small-town USA in a single verse. Pop band? With those melodies and vocal harmonies? Of course. They are all of these and more at the same time. What is certain is that the band has, much like Wilco, indulged and evolved their pop sensibilities over time. It is therefore no surprise that Rhett Miller has fully embraced his pop side on his solo debut, The Instigator.
Miller had written several songs over the years that didn’t quite fit his band, and the idea of putting them out on a solo album came about. In the past few years, Rhett Miller had become friends with L.A. studio guru and musical genius Jon Brion (whose talents rate any hyperbole you can throw at him). Sitting in with Brion’s songwriter circles at the fabled Largo in L.A., Miller developed several of the songs that made it onto the 97’s last record, 2001’s Satellite Rides. Encouraged by Brion, Miller wrote and wrote until there were 30-plus songs to choose from for a solo record. The result is one of the year’s best pop albums.
While some of the songs on The Instigator could have fit nicely on the last 97’s record, others are more traditional, classic pop. What has continued into the new material is Miller’s lyrical style. And it can’t be any better explained than by Miller himself on “This Is What I Do”: “I’m gonna sing this song forever / About a girl that I once knew / And how she is always leaving / This is what I do.” For a guy who was recently married, he can still delve deep into the broken-hearted angst that makes great art. Later in the same song, he reveals he really can’t help himself: “I could hide it in the attic / I could bury it in static / I could only put it out in Japan.” Even if he wanted to stop writing about it, he can’t. Miller often makes use of simple words and sentiments in his portrayals of love and loss, sometimes to the point where his sincerity seems less than genuine. But it really isn’t. He has long written honest, heartfelt words (see “Question” from Satellite Rides), And comes off too charming to question his integrity. Even during the sappiest of moments (this album’s “I Want to Live”), you realize he believes his own words.
The first single, “Come Around” is as lovesick as a song gets: “I’m gonna be lonely for the rest of my life / Unless you come around.” Miller’s passionate vocals match Brion’s lush production, as they do in the closing song, “Terrible Vision.” A simple, shuffling song of percussion and acoustic guitar, Rhett’s vocals are backed up and matched against Brion’s. There are even some Marcy Levy-like background vocals (provided in part by comedian Karen Kilgariff) thrown in to add to the campfire sing along atmosphere. More upbeat, at least musically, is the Old 97’s coulda-been, “The El”, a driving, bluesy rave up covered thick with guitars.
The most beautiful song on The Instigator is “World Inside the World”. A simple bass line, a strummed acoustic guitar and a delicate organ underscore Miller’s words of reservation and worry (while referencing and name-checking Don Delillo and his book Underworld). It’s a sullen song of hope, punctuated by Brion’s gorgeous organ break. Not the only song with literary references, Miller also compares his songs about love to the love letters written by both Richard Wagner and Franz Kafka in “Our Love”, the record’s opening song. There is finally some reassurance in “Your Nervous Heart”, a slow-burning song in which the singer’s plaintive voice asks, “Can I kiss / Your furrowed brow / And calm your nervous heart?” Far from happy-go-lucky, but there is definitely warmth and hope.
Throughout The Instigator, Rhett Miller’s vocals and acoustic guitar sounds more assured than in the past, due in no small part to his standing on his own outside of his band, as well as Jon Brion’s producer’s touch. The entire record sounds like something made by two guys having a lot of fun in the studio. Brion’s musical ability show through the material almost as much as Miller’s, but his ability to keep this from becoming a completely self-indulgent project is what makes this album so enjoyable. Rhett was able to work out some things for himself outside of the democracy of a band, yet still was kept on course by the ever-talented Brion. While this is by no means the end of the Old 97’s, it is a good way for Miller to get his yeah-yeah’s out, and to tide over fans until that band’s next release. It will be interesting to see how this record affects the direction it takes.