Dallas’ Old 97’s tend to break expectations. For one, they’ve been working with the same four members for 27 years. That’s so rare it’s nearly unheard of. Here’s another busted expectation: They have never had a true lull. Most musicians with such a long career have some critically agreed upon weak points. Think Bob Dylan for most of the 1980s or every other Paul McCartney solo album. Yet, Old 97’s have been reliably churning out quality, country-tinged pop-rock for nearly 30 years, and with their new album, Twelfth, they continue this trend into a fourth decade. Here’s what is even better: the years have fallen quite well upon Rhett Miller and the guys, as Twelfth stands out as masterful even among their stacked discography.
In 1994, Old 97’s released their debut album Hitchhiking to Rhome, a relaxed alt-country affair that wasn’t trying to impress anyone but did so anyway. Within ten years, the group had released five more albums (four on a major label), had become a mid-size venue headliner, and even produced one of those eternal hear-it-at-ballparks-and-grocery-stores types of songs with the sticky-sweet, romantic “Question”.
All of this time and well beyond, lead singer and writer Rhett Miller was living the life of a “whisky-soaked, weed-smoke-out-of-my-ears songwriter” as he recently told Rolling Stone. Following 2014’s raucous, debauchery-themed Most Messed Up, Miller decided to sober up. Old 97’s returned with 2017’s Graveyard Whistling, with a majority of the songs co-written, which Miller says helped him work through his struggles with sobriety. Now, with Twelfth, Miller finally felt ready to release an album full of only his songs. “It feels good,” he says.
Twelfth is tuneful, clever, and musically joyful. The opening track, “The Dropouts” is so effortlessly great it has a possibility of sounding boring upon first listen. The same goes for the other burners here, like “Turn Off the TV”, “Confessional Boxing”, and “Bottle Rocket Baby”: they’re all loud, fun, and are likely to bore themselves in the back of your brain and bounce around in there for a few days. But, even better than these light, fun tracks are the songwriting showcases “Belmont Hotel”, “I Like You Better”, and the closer “Why Don’t We Ever Say We’re Sorry”, as there’s a light grace to these tracks that are destined to resonate with many for quite a long while. Twelft is a strong album, even in the context of a band with a history of strong albums.
The famed Dallas Cowboys’ hall-of-fame quarterback Roger Staubach graces the cover of
Twelfth. Rhett Miller says Staubach was chosen because the band admires him as if it could ever be that simple. Staubach played 11 legendary seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before he retired. Naming your 12th album after a man who played only 11 seasons could possibly be an acknowledgment of being past your prime. Old 97’s do not reflect that though, as the excellence of Twelfth tells us that this is really about the refusal of an ending. Old 97’s are still truckin’ after 27 years, and Here’s how it feels right now: A lively, loud group of friends soaking up the sun, surrounded by their spoils. There’s lemonade, and everyone’s looking off in the middle distance, ready for more. It’s not ending anytime soon, and it’s as good as ever.