When Rhett Miller visited WYEP in October 2008 it was with his Old 97’s band mate and co-writer, Murray Hammond. During the in-studio interview Rhett talked about the dichotomy between his solo work and the music he makes with the band. While the two discussed the democracy of creating music for the group it was Miller who referred to wanting an outlet for songs that the band rejected. He explained this void by stating “I like to rock.” Although The Old 97’s have had their share of rocking/rockablilly numbers Miller’s independent work is infused with much more of a pop/rock sensibility.
With a background in fiction writing Miller’s songs rely heavily on character, drama, and storylines with subtexts of conflict and change. He often takes the point of view of the guy who can’t win in love, a strange stance for the happily married musician and the heartthrob of the band. But the literate Mr. Miller prefers the anguish of heart over happy love ballads and balances out the angst with his bubbly melodies. That’s not to say that he doesn’t write any sweet ballads; “Bonfire” paints a night time meeting between lovers, with details of sycamores and meadows but even here Rhett points out that everything will change. That sense of losing what is precious – the precarious nature of love - pops up again on “Haphazardly.”
Rhett Miller opens with the hooky “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore” with it’s lyrics that epitomize Miller’s solo outlook - “God give me strength and a good length of rope.” It is also reflects the work of one of Miller’s heroes, the late writer David Foster Wallace who took his own life last year. “Like Love” finds our protagonist pining for a girl he can’t afford, figuratively and literally. The single “I Need To Know Where I Stand” is another song full of insecurity but so infectious you can almost overlook those apocalyptic lyrics “well the world might end in a minute my friend/so I need to know where I stand.”
Miller throws a little surprise our way with “Happy Birthday Don’t Die,” well, not lyrically, but certainly musically. This one is a real rocker with distorted guitar and grinding bass. It’s the most intriguing song on the record with its story of a widow in a futuristic world. The album is dedicated to Narene Miller, Miller’s Grandmother and may reflect his emotions on that loss.
Although the songs on his eponymous release are mostly somber Miller’s music is buoyant and if you listen carefully you’ll catch the silver lining. Life is hard and made harder by human inadequacy but it is our failures that produce the create rewards.