Lovers Not Fighters

You May Think It’s Stupid; Rhett Miller Thinks It’s Art

There in eight of the commonest words in the language is the metatheme of prepunk pop-rock, where unhappy love songs outnumber happy ones and everything else is a novelty. Yet though the credo's from "Rollerskate Skinny," a Satellite Rides winner about an elusive Hollywood cutie Miller hopes to save from a bad end, examination of the two albums reveals another difference. On Fight Songs, the love songs are marked by distance if not dissolution, and the cheerful exception is named after the street where she lives, which is named after the inventor of the atom bomb. Satellite Rides is somewhat more optimistic. "King of All the World" (as in "You make me feel like I'm the") isn't the opener and lead single just because openers and lead singles are supposed to get the blood flowing. All right, maybe it is. But the Old 97's are formalists. So it's thematic as well.

Miller acts like a kid and is youthful enough to put the act across—in a less buff era you could imagine him milking his looks for girl appeal, and he might yet. But in fact he's 30, the age when male rock and rollers' star-crossed love lives start seeming more callow than cute. So although he may sincerely believe that love doesn't believe in him—that's one definitive songwriting mood—he's right on time to be perking up a little. It's true that his prospects never get sunnier than on the opener, and that he probably considers it just as thematic to end with the hyperactive "Book of Poems" (as in "I got a real bad feeling that a book of poems ain't enough") and the doleful "Nervous Guy" (as in "goodbye goodbye from a"). Still, I'm impressed by Satellite Rides' game come-ons. The rakish ones connect first—the thwarted bowling metaphor of "Rollerskate Skinny," "Buick City Complex" defying the wrecking ball with public phone sex, and "Designs on You," as sly a proposal of premarital adultery as Prince's "Head" is bold. It takes longer to notice the two-minute acoustic "Question," buried in the album's middle. It's nothing, really—just a sketched encounter in which a bashful she has a good cry and takes the long way home with the he who brought it on. Yet it has one matchless virtue. It feels like a viable romantic model.

Then again, the thing about rock and roll of the unironic sort the Old 97's make their lifework, especially once the band stuff is taken care of, is that at some deep somatic level even its unhappy love songs are pretty viable. There's a future unknown to literature in the marrow of its rhythms and the throb of its voice. That's an axiom of the Old 97's' formalism. It's why Fight Songs and Satellite Rides are of a piece for all their distinctness, why Miller believes he can say what he has to say in a song of 100 words. Maybe too it's why he tells interviewers his favorite writer is the American miniaturist Raymond Carver, why in homage to the famed Carver collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which I'd found pinched and complacent about it, there's a grim track on Fight Songs called "What We Talk About." Backstage at the Bowery I tried to get Miller to back down on this judgment. He responded that people were wrong about Carver, missing the "human sentiment" in him, and recommended a book called Where Water Comes Together With Other Water. Turned out to be poetry, not fiction; turned out to be fairly great; turned out to be from Carver's controversial "second life," after he'd stopped drinking and gotten less grim, although he still spent much time pondering death and loss, as who doesn't? I concluded that Miller wasn't as innocent as I'd feared.

Handsome stringbean with milkable looks: bottom left
photo: Michael Williams
Handsome stringbean with milkable looks: bottom left

In romance, after all, a book of poems rarely is enough. In art sometimes it can be.

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