There appear to be two types of blogging. “Personal blogging” takes the blogger’s own life and tries to make a story out of it in hope that it will appeal to the reader. “Authority blogging” attempts to pass on some information which the reader finds interesting. I guess my hope is that I can combine these two approaches by relating a personal story to an album. But is it all very self-indulgent, if not narcissistic? The more personal a blog post is, the easier it is to dismiss it as self-absorbed nonsense. Who is interested in what happened to an overweight, insecure, naïve grammar school boy in 1972? Or indeed, an overweight, insecure, naïve retiree in 2022?
Most of the posts I make get read by about 20 people. “Blue” by Joni Mitchell has sold several million copies. That is probably an accurate reflection of the relative merits of her album and my blog. Both of these are highly personal and her album is many million times more interesting than my sybaritic ramblings. Nevertheless, I have this forlorn hope that writing about myself is mildly interesting to other people although the obvious question is, “why would I think that?”
The opening song on “Most Messed Up” is “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” and it’s funny, entertaining and revealing; qualities I can only make a pathetic attempt to emulate. The song describes Rhett Miller’s life as the lead singer and guitarist in a rock’n’roll band. He is neither overweight or naïve, although some insecurity does reveal itself. He understands that he is not an easy person to get along with “It must be hard to get partnered with me. Some narcissism, some OCD.” He understands that listening to bands sing about their lives isn’t always entertaining, “I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential” because “most of this stuff should be kept confidential,” but he feels the urge to let us know what his life is like: “it’s both a blast and a bore“. The singer explains that they have been doing this for a long time and they love it. “Rock ‘n’ roll’s been very very good to me. The open road’s the only place I wanna be.” They have played lots of shows in “nightclubs and bars”, and in a variety of locations “from Memphis to Mars“. He’s done some stupid things, “I’ve jumped off of risers I should not have climbed” and smoked “mountains of weed, and a handful of pills” but “none of the hard stuff, ‘cos that shit kills”. He may have fallen out with his bandmates every now again but his life is pretty good, “I never once went to work for The Man.” Watching them perform this song on KEXP brings tears of joy and happiness to my face, for reasons I can’t explain.
At the back of the cover for “Most Messed Up” by Old 97’s, it says “Play this album loud“. On the Wikipedia page for the album, it describes the band as “country-rock“. To these ears, this is simply a rock album, in the style of Green On Red, Slobberbone, The Bottle Rockets and the best of Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse. The resemblance between the music on this album and “country rock” of The Eagles, John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris, The Rockingbirds or other proponents of country-rock music is minimal, if not negligible. As I wrote, when describing “The Grand Theatre Volume One”, the band themselves describe their music as “loud folk.”
“Most Messed Up” is Old 97’s tenth studio album. Their first album was released in 1994 and their twelfth album, released in 2020, was called “Twelfth”. The lead singer is Rhett Miller, who was born in 1970 in Austin, Texas. His first name is Stuart, but his family nicknamed him Rhett, after Rhett Butler in “Gone With The Wind”. When he was 10 years old, he developed a serious inner ear infection and he spent several months in hospital. Two years later he started sixth grade at a private boy’s school where he was severely bullied. He had started playing guitar when he was 12 years old and after a failed suicide attempt, aged 14, he began to write songs and play in local venues. This led to him opening for Rosanne Cash and Chris Isaak. He formed his first band, aged 20 and in 1993, he formed a musical liaison with bassist Murry Hammond and a neighbour of theirs, guitarist Ken Bethea. After a couple of drummers left, Philip Peeples joined them and the personnel of Old 97’s has remained constant ever since.
Rhett Miller described the dynamics of the band. “Democracy is fucked because you end up having to make so many people happy. I’ve been proud of the last records, but I see how there is push and pull. There’s Murry who has this idea that we are a garage band, like a Nuggets record, that’s what we need to be. And I think Ken kind of wishes we were a surf band, and Philip just wants everybody to be happy. And I vacillate between wanting to make Belle and Sebastian records and wanting to do kind of honky-tonk stuff.” The magical thing about this album is that appears to tick all the boxes. Some of the songs could have been made by a teenage garage band, some of the guitar work is very tuneful, redolent of the best surf bands like Forgotten Rebels or Agent Orange, the indie rock of Belle And Sebastian informs many of the songs and all of the album would go down a storm in a honky-tonk bar. I’ve never seen them play live but the YouTube clips indicate that it would be unforgettable, even allowing for Rhett Miller’s tendency to sing some solo harmony notes.
The album was recorded after Rhett Miller brought 30 songs into the recording studio and half of them were pretty or sad songs and the other half were full of swearing, whiskey and pills. At first, the rest of the band were reluctant to record the more savage songs but after listening to the songs, Ken Bethea persuaded Rhett Miller to record “make a record where we drop like 47 f-bombs and talk about sex in every other song — and whiskey!”
“Wasted” is another song which describes Rhett Miller’s feelings about his life. He wants to get wasted with a girl who spends too much time on her phone and worrying about the future. He is not like that. “They might think I’ve wasted my life they’re wrong. I’m not down with the uptight world“, he just wants to get wasted with her. Rhett Miller said “I caught my 10-year-old son, Max, walking around singing “Wasted” and it’s so weird hearing a 10-year-old singing, “Tonight I want to get wasted with you.” And so I said to him, “Max, that’s kind of inappropriate,” and his line, which is a testament to what a glib con man he’s going to grow up into, was: “Dad, if you didn’t want me to sing it — if it was so inappropriate — you shouldn’t have made it so catchy.”
The title track, “Most Messed Up” is a throwaway, out and out rock song. The singer is feeling desperately sorry for himself. He has had his heart broken and he is over indulging, leading to him “proving it all night to the porcelain god and the dark-eyed girl with the name I forgot.” It’s the last song on the album and feels like a show stopper when played live.
Rhett Miller described the rationale behind the album. “I’m typically not that interested in getting into personal life stuff because I don’t think it has much to do with the songs. But at this point in my life I’ve come to a decision where I don’t have to try and be perfect. I don’t have to try and be nice. I don’t have to try and make everybody happy all the time. And it was really liberating — that decision — and terrifying. And I think that with my music I’ve always tried so hard to make it kind of pretty, and not necessarily inoffensive, but I don’t want to push too many buttons. I’ve tried to keep it kind of clean and streamlined. This time around I just decided, who I really am is like most people. I am flawed and fucked up — and I think I just feel like embracing it. I don’t feel like trying to be a perfect person anymore.” There’s my answer then. Don’t try to be perfect and don’t try and make everybody happy all the time.