Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“The truth is I’m a total disaster.” That’s an eye-opening phrase for the first song on anyone’s album.
The frontman and primary singer-songwriter for the Old 97’s has cultivated a prolific, if somewhat under the radar, solo career in addition to his full-time job. He joins a select and interesting group of veteran musicians who have accomplished a similar feat (Pete Townshend, Lindsay Buckingham/Stevie Nicks, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, recently Billy F. Gibbons), releasing music under their own names that doesn’t fit the profile of the longstanding outfits they usually lead.
This is Miller’s sixth studio effort since the Old 97’s started (eighth overall including a live disc), and as you can tell by the lyrics quoted above, it’s an intimate, unflinching reflection on what makes him tick, warts and all. Like the best solo work from frontmen of long time bands, none of these dozen tracks would fit into the Old 97’s rocking approach. Rather the songs, and sound, on The Messenger is more measured, leaving plenty of room for Miller’s thoughts about “depression and insecurity and modern life and somehow wanting to live despite it all,” as he says in the press materials accompanying the disc.
Musically, there are plenty of Tom Petty influences. He even sounds like Petty, drawling on “Wheels” as he pledges his love (“We’ll live forever/ long as the wheels go ‘round”) and “I Used to Write in Notebooks.” The latter, a sometimes lighter look at how technology has changed the way Miller lives, is meshed with a darker expression of his fear of death when he sings, “Got the reaper standing by,” in a reserved voice that’s sympathetic and melancholy. He’s angry on the harder-edged “Permanent Damage,” singing, “Go back to sleep/ Nobody wants to hear about your stupid dream,” as the band, led by guitarist/producer Sam Cohen, chugs behind him with a psychedelic Byrds-styled strum. Other titles like “Broken,” “Close Most of the Time,” “I Can’t Change,” and “The Human Condition” (“The human condition is misery”) indicate Miller’s sometimes wincingly honest introspective nature here. He gets teary on the ballad “Did I Lose You” with “I want a love that’s real/ and maybe that scares you.” Miller goes tender country on “Bitter/Sweet,” a lovely waltz time and another lost love tale where he pines for an old flame with “Goodbyes and goodnights and good lucks and hold tights/ Shattered like glass around my feet.”
Generally missing, though, are hooks that bring you back for another listen. The songs are melodic and easy on the ears if not particularly memorable. Perhaps dropping a few ballads would have made this a tighter, more focused statement. Maybe he’s saving the best stuff for his band.
Still, this is a personal, contemplative statement for Miller who uses his time away from the Old 97’s to work with different people (Cohen is a driving force on guitar), crafting songs coming straight from his often broken heart.