After years of writing songs about girls he once knew and how they left him, Old 97 Rhett Miller got formal about it. “I’m gonna sing this song forever,” he declared on his 2002 solo debut The Instigator. “This is what I do.” A well-drawn mission statement is a great way to justify a limited worldview, but for Rhett Miller it defined a life project: to explore the existential ramifications of kissing girls. Lots of girls. And there’s no sense mucking up a good kissing song, let alone an insightful one, with sound effects. The like-pedigreed Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy may seek adventure in sonic wanderings, but Miller is steadfast in the foxhole, sticking to his sha-la-las and singing it like he sees it. Who has the better plan, he or his fellow alt-country valedictorians, may remain moot. But Miller’s new album The Believer is a better soundtrack for true adventure—the kind that involves another person—than A Ghost Is Born or, God knows, 29.
More often than not on this full-blooded affair about full-blooded affairs, Miller, once unlucky even when he scored, actually seems to be enjoying the sex he can’t stop obsessing over. Right at the top, “My Valentine” treats smoking grass and shaking ass like the revelations they can be. And if a valentine who says she loves him then treats him unkind doesn’t seem like anything new, at least now he’s taking less of her shit. “Get out on the dance floor,” he implores her, “Time passes/We’ve got to rail against it.” Guitars that surge rather than ache tell us that his blood won’t turn to dirt if she keeps her arms folded. Then there’s “Fireflies,” which, while offering another of Miller’s love-equals-getting-hit-by-a-train analogies, also offers Rachel Yamagata. Consider that the last time Miller let an actual woman sing on one of his woman trouble songs was 10 years ago on Too Far to Care, when Exene Cervenkova bled black on the hoedown nightmare “Four Leaf Clover.” A decade of getting it wrong and trying again—and somewhere in there marrying a model—has done wonders for his diplomatic streak.
The music surprises too, though not as much as it could have. The early buzz on The Believer—Sinatra comparisons, the helping hands of Jon Brion and a dozen or so musicians—hinted at a lush, lounge-country crossbreed that Miller approximates twice. On “Fireflies” and “Brand New Way,” the music is as ravishing as a Soho kiss and as classic as candlelight. The rest, while good-to-great, isn’t the kitchen sink it could have been and won’t surprise anyone who already loves the 97’s’ game-set-match Satellite Rides.
So with the guitar numbers going stiff more than once, and Miller still holding his day job with a band that’s only stiff where it counts, this able crooner might do better to give the kitchen sink a try. What, besides an extra layer of production syrup, can Believer cuts like “Ain’t That Strange” and “Delicate” offer that almost any Old 97’s barn burner can’t? Not half as much as Miller’s re-recording of an actual 97’s song. “Question,” about popping the one “you should say yes to once in your life,” is essentially the same tune here as on Satellite Rides, half a pace slower and trimmed with chamberlain strings. Much more than on his glinting original, Miller sounds far away, outside the song. But still, there is something sweet in Miller’s slow, commemorative cadence. Whether the change in pace is meant to signify loss or contentedness or both, what it sounds like most is growing up. In the years since he first recorded “Question,” Miller has both popped it himself and become a father. He now approaches his own song with a reverence so pronounced it’s almost fear. The long-haul implications of the question in question must have been clear to this serial lady killer before he started claiming dependents. But now he knows how lucky he was to ask it even once.