“I believe in love, but it don’t believe in me.”
I’ve loved the Old 97’s ever since those deceptively simple words, easy to understand yet packed with meaning, and the crazy catchy hook beneath them, etched their way into my consciousness. That line seems to sum up an entire history of pop music that precedes it: a clash between unashamed romanticism and the disappointments of a reality where said romanticism is so often thwarted. It seemed so simple, so obvious; just amazing that nobody had ever put those words in that exact order before.
The line comes from “Rollerskate Skinny” on Satellite Rides, which along with Fight Songs, Most Messed Up, and Graveyard Whistling are the essential purchases of this killer band. Often labelled as alt-country (thanks to their Texas origin no doubt), they could more accurately be described as pop-rock-n’-rollers with an occasional country twang. Brooks & Dunn they ain’t.
These fellas have been going “longer than you been alive” as they memorably boasted on Most Messed Up, which in my case (27 years and counting) is certainly true. So where does their twelfth album, rather shockingly named Twelfth, fit into their lasting legacy?
For the most part it’s a continuation of age-old themes for them, with lead singer and terrific songwriter Rhett Miller playing the Lothario and, as he’s previously described himself, “most messed up motherfucker in town”. There are drinking and partying songs on Twelfth, just as there always has been: “The Dropouts” opens the album with a celebration of school dropouts who’ve got nothing to their name but whiskey and guitar strings, but then again “nothing’s good enough for the dropouts”. “Bottle Rocket Baby” begins with “I’ve been living on a barstool” and ends with Miller’s lawyer mate Robert Jenkins hypothetically bailing him out of jail for “having too much fun”.
But another drinking song on Twelfth is more revealing of the album’s overall tone. “Absence (What We’ve Got)” is a sad alcoholic’s lament, cheered up only by the “you” mentioned throughout, whom we must assume to be Miller’s spouse. The first verse into pre-chorus dispiritingly ends: “The water turns to wine/Just like in the Bible/It happens all the time/And the wine turns into whiskey/And the whiskey turns to tears/It’s been that way for years.”
That aptly sums up the darker mood of this album. Much like releases by the Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell this year, the Old 97’s Twelfth is largely downbeat and sombre, shown not just in the depressive lyrics but in the midtempo crawl of the music. The band rarely rocks hard, not like they did on Most Messed Up or half of Graveyard Whistling, with only “Bottle Rocket Baby” and “Confessional Boxing” picking up the pace and sounding like they have some guitar-led fire in their belly. The rest of the tracks plod along rather, with a slow and steady beat, and electric guitar licks kept firmly in check; none of the band are allowed to run riot or get messed up.
This slowing down of pacing is possibly deliberate, evoking through a sense of stasis the rut of an alcoholic who’s hit rock bottom. But still, it can’t help but come as a little bit of a disappointment for Old 97’s fans, because powered momentum has so often been their greatest pleasure, rather fittingly for a band named after a train. So the urge to skip less pacey tracks comes as a letdown after Most Messed Up and Graveyard Whistling’s freakish consistency.
That said, typically excellent songwriting helps to give some weight to the best of these more lethargic moments. “Belmont Hotel”, for instance, uses a subtle undertow of strings to add a “Yesterday”-like poignancy to a clever song which has a conceit that compares a long-running love affair to the famous hotel in West Dallas. “I Like You Better” keeps itself interesting for its near-5-minute length by unveiling an intriguing, sometimes surprising list of things that Miller likes less than the song’s “you”: sleeping for days, playing guitar, self-doubt, cold hard cash, a six-pack of beer, and lastly and perhaps most significantly “that song from my youth”.
But these moments of idiosyncratic quirkiness are lost in the overall unremarkable midtempo chug of the album. And Rhett Miller seems to realise it: “There’s no more juice, there’s no more power” he laments on “Happy Hour”, and “I got no gas in my tank” he admits on “Diamonds on Neptune”. Washed-out and enervated, with a self-admitted lack of juice and gas in the tank, Twelfth makes one miss the visceral attraction of the Old 97’s best work.
Yet with its unashamed romanticism, its repeated direction of attention away from self-absorbed misery and towards the “you” that seems to so truly captivate Miller, it almost redeems itself.
Because Miller believes in love, after all. And in blessed moments, it almost seems to believe in him.