by Michael Goldberg
Monday, November 4, 2002
Rhett Miller's Nervous Heart
The Old 97's frontman bares his soul, and in doing so makes beautiful music.
While everyone seems to be focused on the solo career of Ryan Adams, the former frontman for the disbanded alt-country band Whiskeytown, the singer/songwriter/guitarist from that other alt-country band, Old 97's, has quietly one-upped Adams. And Rhett Miller didn't even have to break up his band to do it. His side-project/solo debut, The Instigator, is one of the most addictive albums I've heard this year; it's a 12-song reflection on love and it rocks in a bright, sincere way.
Like a lot of really good things, The Instigator is deceptively simple. The songs make use of the most basic rock instrumentation: a couple of guitars, bass, drums and the occasional keyboard (piano or Hammond organ). Miller worked with producer Jon Brian (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright), and one must credit multi-instrumentalist Brian (who plays guitar, bass, Dobro, keyboards and provides background vocals on the album) with keeping things stripped down and focused on Miller's songs and emotionally vulnerable vocals. When Miller sings, excitedly but also a bit tentatively, "I cannot believe you're my love," you totally believe him.
The Instigator is the kind of album a pop album made by a rocker that you could dismiss as lightweight on one or two listens. When you first hear it, it sounds so understated. That is, if you hear it. There was no big pre-release hype about it. Other than the expected feature in No Depression, I haven't seen much press. It's one of those gems that easily could slip by. There's nothing cool about The Instigator, so the hipsters will give it a wide berth; it's not likely to get much college radio play amidst the current punk/garage rock revival. And aside from the Triple A format, it doesn't quite fit any of the other narrowly focused commercial radio formats.
While listening to The Instigator these past few weeks, I've also checked out the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' upcoming splintered no-wave post-punk masterpiece "Machine" (which could be about making love to a machine, or like a machine, or then again may be about something else entirely), Yo La Tengo's EP Nuclear War (very timely remakes of the Sun Ra composition), the reissue of Pavement's brilliant (and so cynical) Slanted & Enchanted (with tons of additional material), The Datsuns' self-titled V2 debut (with such innocent love songs as "MF From Hell"), the Black Heart Procession's sinister Amore del Tropico and a few others. In comparison to the mostly ironic, world-weary or dark worldviews contemporary artists express on those and other albums, the sentiments expressed on Miller's album are downright old-fashioned.
But sometimes old-fashioned doesn't mean out of date. Most of the songs find him singing about fragile or vulnerable women to whom he offers comfort (the others find him trying to make sense of women who have left him). You could say this is out of step with modern life, a feminism-informed world where everyone men and women are supposedly tough and independent. But I think that most people want a soulmate who not only loves and desires them, but is there for them when they feel out of sorts, or scared or confused.
And Miller certainly doesn't present himself as any kind of superman. His love makes him as vulnerable at times as the women in his songs. One of the most beautifully written lyrics serves as the opening verse of "Come Around." With a voice so sad and heartbroken he begins, "I'm dressed all in blue and I'm remembering you and the dress you wore when you broke my heart/ I'm depressed upstairs and I'm remembering where and when and how and why/ You had to go so far." Then he worries/pleads in the chorus: "Am I only gonna be lonely for the rest of my life/ I'm gonna be lonely for the rest of my life/ Unless you come around/ So come around/ So come around/ So come around." The ache in Miller's voice on this one just floors me.
There's something refreshing about Miller's plainspoken writing, and the straightforward way he sings his lyrics. During the ballad "Your Nervous Heart," he confides, "You're terrified and it's tearing me apart.../ I know the world's a bitch don't get me wrong/ You got to give the world the finger/ You've got to sing a happy song..." Then, in the chorus, he sings most passionately, "Can I kiss your furrowed brow and calm your nervous heart?"
The album opener, "Our Love," rocks like one of the uptempo tracks on Wilco's A.M. It's a song about both adultery and selling out one's friend for a love that is, ultimately, elusive. "Richard thought his letters to his lover Matilda were a mess," Miller sings. "He should have quit before he had written the address/ They made love on the mezzanine/ Her husband was his friend."
The song begins with acoustic guitar strums and basic 4/4 drumming, which are joined by electric guitar and bass. There's a tension between the drums, guitar and Miller's vocal that builds to a thrilling countrified electric-guitar solo and the infectious chorus: "Our love so vast/ Our love so fast/ Our love's all wrong/ Our love goes on and on."
Miller's album has been criticized as L.A. country-pop, a readymade in the tradition of The Eagles and all those singer/songwriter albums of the '70s that utilized session men to backup lightweight radio-friendly pop songs. I say there's nothing wrong with good radio-friendly pop songs. Most of the alt-country bands that have come along since Uncle Tupelo appeared in the early '90s don't hide their influences, which include The Byrds' now-classic 1968 country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo (the album Gram Parsons was on), as well as Parsons' post-Byrds turns leading the Flying Burrito Brothers and as a solo artist. What some forget is that those same influences inspired such country/rock/pop groups as The Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
What's kind of interesting here is that while in the late '60s and early '70s, pop-rock artists went country, since the mid-'90s the opposite has happened. Wilco are the prime example of a band that started with a strong country-rock sound and quickly morphed towards Beatlesque pop. And if you give the later albums by Whiskeytown and the Old 97's a listen the pop influence is also there (as if they saw what Wilco was up to and went along for the ride).
So Miller is simply following in a time-honored tradition. Rather than repeat himself, with The Instigator he's trying on a slightly different musical suit. At the moment it's a good fit.