Rhett Miller’s got two things down: love and nausea. Miller has spent 20-plus years fronting the Old 97’s, and the sprawling ruckus of the band’s liquor-soaked decades is summed up succinctly in the group’s umpteenth album Most Messed Up. Since the early ’90s, the alt-country group from Dallas has been continuously churning out some of the most off-kilter cowpoke crunk. Most Messed Up delivers what most Old 97’s albums provide: a call to get wasted that comes rollicking through a distinctly countrified megaphone. Miller’s songwriting chops don’t need any introduction, but his careful scrutiny of what it means to be a musician is outstripped only by a penchant for focusing on alcohol, the problems it causes and the ones it solves. Joined on this record by Tommy Stinson of The Replacements and renowned lap steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse, Most Messed Up repeats all the Old 97’s standard motifs with increased flair.
The six-minute opening track and lead single, “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” offers a meta-analysis of the almost rockstar life that Miller and company have been leading, and “This Is The Ballad” sounds like it could’ve been off 1999’s Fight Songs. This is a compliment in some sense: The band’s just-under-the-radar status is belied by its unshakeable consistency. But not even a big name like Stinson can alter the fact that the Old 97’s are a cult band in the end. That might be the band’s Achilles heel: an inability to evolve any farther. There’s plenty of drinking, puking, and introspection, but there’s also a sense of smirking amusement that flies above it all. Miller can write songs of passing conquests or deeply felt love, and both pack an equal emotional punch. The band never really took a hiatus, even during Miller’s string of solo albums. Still, the songwriting is solid, and for those who enjoy a good rehab tune like “Intervention” or the lure of the forthcoming party and catastrophe that “Wheels Off” promises, this record won’t disappoint. The Old 97’s helped pave the way for new alt-country acts, but even after 20 years, its records make drinking until you puke sound as grand as true love.