Old 97's 2024
Photo: Jason Quigley / Missing Piece Group

Old 97’s’ ‘American Primitive’ Confronts the Here and Now

After spending a record ruminating about the past, Old 97’s are back and “better than brand-new”. American Primitive is timely and engaged with the larger world.

American Primitive
Old 97's
5 April 2024

On their previous album, Twelfth, Old 97’s reckoned with their nearly 30 years of debauchery and drinking through the clear-eyed estimation of lead singer Rhett Miller‘s recent sobriety. There were no clean breaks—”This House Got Ghosts” compares life in recovery to living in a haunted house—but the record avoided overt nostalgia and reflexive judgment, offering thanks for the inexplicable endurance of what Old 97’s have made of those years. It’s a life, as Miller sings on the centerpiece, “Belmont Hotel”, that is “better than brand-new”.

American Primitive‘s lead single, “Where the Road Goes”, would have fit well on Twelfth. Miller calls the song a “spiritual travelogue” of his life in music, and it is at once a wistful reminiscence on the past and a wandering daydream into an unknown future, both of which only deepen his appreciation for the simple beauty he’s found in the present. This privileging of the present grounds the song on the new album, in dialogue with their older work yet as timely and engaged with the larger world as any the band has released to date.

American Primitive opens with the line: “You’ve got to dance like the world is falling down around you / Because it is.” Like so much in the current news cycle, there’s a trace of the familiar just below the surface, and longtime fans of Old 97’s will likely notice the similarities between “Falling Down” and “Dance with Me”, a song from 2008’s Blame It on Gravity. From Ken Bethea’s barrel-chested surf guitar intro to Phillip Peeple’s syncopated beat, the songs sound similar even as the lyrics illustrate how much has changed in the intervening years. The narrator in “Dance with Me” seeks a distraction from the world’s problems.

“Don’t tell me the world is in trouble,” Miller sings. “Dance with me into the ocean / Roll with me into the sea.” Its tropical details suggest rising ocean levels were at least a passing concern in 2008, but they are primarily a pretense for the come-on. “Falling Down”, on the other hand, is downright despondent over the collapse of culture and climate alike, conflating the natural world with technology (electrical wires as spider webs, cell towers as trees) in an increasingly dystopian portrait. Even as stubborn gratitude lights up the song with moments of hope, the stark contrast with their older, more playful work sets a serious tone for the album to come.

Less hopeful is “Western Stars”, which offers a glimpse into the brooding, recursive self-talk of isolation that feels far more pointed than 2010’s cheeky character study on agoraphobia, “The Dance Class”. A better touchstone is Old 97’s’ most recognizable number, “Timebomb”. Whereas “Timebomb” is a manic emotional sketch by a young man in the prime of his youth getting a lot of attention, not all of it welcome or healthy, “Western Stars” is its depressive twin, the attention long since gone and sorely missed. The song never mentions social media explicitly, yet it nevertheless conveys the fog of a doomscroll hangover where personal agency feels as elusive as genuine connection. The same latent internal pressure both tracks express in terms of bombs is present, but “Western Stars” ultimately ends as it begins, any hope for change overwhelmed by its own grasping for dreams too big to hold. 

For every “Western Stars”, however, there is a “Honeypie”, a humble celebration of love’s middle age and a spiritual corrective to the misanthrope in Graveyard Whistling’s “She Hates Everybody”. American Primitive practically insists on such correctives, buttressing one impulse with another, often within a single song. The weight of a day is both crushing and a masterpiece. Miller compares a setting sun to “fresh blood” and then later notices that same sun sparkling in the eyes of a loved one, new leaves on the trees, and hair redolent with cherry blossoms. He spins “out of control”, but “love”, he posits, “will figure out a way”. If it sounds simple, that may be intentional.

The term “American primitive” refers to a self-taught style of painting dating back to the 18th century and a genre of acoustic guitar music popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by John Fahey. Both uses suggest a conscious turn toward the simplicity of a knowable, recoverable past. On the chorus of the title track—a vivid exhalation of stress, the deep breath before the deep breath that unknots the shoulders—it’s held up almost as an ethos: “Rememberin’ how to live / American primitive.” Old 97’s have seemingly embraced this back-to-basics mindset, reportedly arriving at the recording studio without having done any preproduction work ahead of time. Musically, the resulting album feels looser and more centered, each member trusting their ability to do what they’ve done for so many years now. 

Honestly, what else do you want from the Old 97’s at this point: a bit of self-deprecation and wordplay, some shuffles, and a couple of understated songs from Murry Hammond? Yes, “Honeypie” is a little corny, even with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck hanging out in the corner with his mandolin, but sometimes you need to laugh at the state of the world and our frailty within it. Faced with the precarity of the present moment, one impulse is to panic, one is to brood, one is to laugh, and one is to express gratitude. All can be found on American Primitive. After spending a record ruminating about the past, Old 97’s are back and “better than brand-new”. More than anything else, American Primitive‘s simple gift of new music that confronts the present moment and all its apparent contradictions is what Old 97’s fans should be most grateful for. 

RATING 8 / 10