Rock ‘n’ roll’s mythology says the genre is all about extremes: hard partying, hard living, head-over-heels romance, hitting rock bottom, making deals with the devil, hoping to die before getting old, etc.
But The Old 97's, the Dallas bar band who played a starring role in the '90s "alt-country" boom, didn’t die before they got old. Or, well, before they got middle-aged. On the first song from the new album Most Messed Up, the 43-year-old Rhett Miller (a one-time Atlantic contributor!) sings about how his band stuck together “for longer than you’ve been alive”—you being the hypothetical teenage rock fan.
Listening to the terse, wry, and supremely catchy roots-rock tunes that populate Most Messed Up, you get the impression that the secret to the band’s longevity might be in how they learned to live with—and live without—the genre’s legendary extremes. In the aforementioned opening track’s chronicle of life on the road, Miller presents rockstardom as just another career: “Most of our shows were a triumph of rock, although some nights I might have been checkin’ the clock.” He cops to jumping off risers, having imprudent love affairs, and downing “gallons of whiskey” but also preaches a certain degree of moderation—“none of the hard stuff, that shit kills.”
Square? Not at all. The songs swagger with cowpunk rhythms and guitar heroics, and it's entertaining to hear Miller rework rock cliches. You can't help but grin at a song like “Intervention”: In it, Miller’s preaches sobriety to a friend who’s “mystified why we’re so lame”—but the band’s making exactly the kind of ruckus you’d need for a night of hard drinking.
Most Messed Up is out April 29, but we're streaming it in its entirety below.