Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller has spent the past two decades drawing up character studies of the heartbroken, the drunken and the depraved. In the band’s early days it was easy for Miller to write about the goings-on of a budding rock star, but as time wore on, the characters became just that—although perhaps thinly veiled versions of himself.
“I guess there’s an element of autobiography with the debauchery that happens in the songs,” Miller told me a few years ago. “I feel like it was only yesterday. If I feel like going to a weird, dark, drunken, angry place, it’s very easy to go there.”
Twenty years in and Miller is looking back on that weird, dark, drunken, angry place—and the Old 97’s aren’t fucking around. The band’s tenth full-length, Most Messed Up, places the microscope squarely on Miller, who reflects on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of being in a working band. The result is a cathartic, punk-rock stomper of a record, and perhaps the first in the band’s catalog to accurately capture their sweatbox live performances.
Opener “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” serves as the album’s mission statement, a revealing page ripped from Miller’s journal on these Texas twangers (it should be noted that the four men that perform on this album are the same four men that performed on 1994’s Hitchhike to Rhome). That song simmers before “Give It Time” boils over with the high-speed cow-punk the band employed on their first three records.
Most Messed Up doesn’t let up from there. Even “This Is the Ballad” (which is not a ballad) and “Wheels Off”—both of which reconcile the outlaw country and British Invasion found on albums like Satellite Rides and Blame It On Gravity—or the surfy power pop of “Guadalajara” keep levels in the red. Hooks mostly take a backseat to energy, and with that so does some of Miller’s clever wordplay. In their place is the visceral rawness of songs like “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On” and “Nashville,” the latter of which lets the sweat and the F-bombs fly. These songs aren’t calculated. They don’t sound labored over. Which is the point. It’s easily the most punk-rock thing the 97’s have done (it shouldn’t be surprising that the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson makes an appearance).
Most Messed Up’s final two songs end things with a proper train wreck. “Intervention” chugs and screeches and features a punk rawk chorus sure to be chanted by audiences for years. The Stones-y title track slams the door with Miller’s debauched declaration, “I am the most messed-up motherfucker in this town.” It’s a far cry from the sounds of a young lad falling in love on a road called Oppenheimer. Now, imagine if the Old 97’s continued on that left turn at 1999’s prim-by-comparison Fight Songs. That would’ve been most messed up.