Dan MacIntosh Review: Rhett Miller Gets Real with ‘The Messenger’

Rhett Miller by Neff Conner
Rhett Miller - Photo by Neff Conner


A Rhett Miller solo album isn’t all that different from an Old 97’s release (he’s the group’s front man and primary songwriter), only there’s probably a little less country twang to it. Although slightly sonically different, Miller by himself always gives us honest – and many times self-deprecating — songs.

The album opens with “Total Disaster,” which is a little like a sequel to the Old 97’s “Time Bomb.”

However, the album’s best song is a quiet one titled “I Used To Write In Notebooks.” While detailing how technology has changed over, Miller also chronicles how he’s changed as a person. It’s smart, sung over a lovely piano-colored instrumental bed.

A little of the Old 97’s musical spirit arrives with “Permanent Damage,” which is introduced by a Neil Young and Crazy Horse-like electric guitar fanfare. Miller sounds angry when he responds to another person with, “No one wants to hear about your stupid dreams.” 

Rhett Miller portrait - Courtesy image
Rhett Miller portrait – Courtesy image

Miller veers a little closer to country with “I Can’t Change,” which clip-clops like a cowboy-led ranch horse and also includes pretty steel guitar. The instrumentation is sparse, which gives Miller plenty of room to spill his sad sack guts. The song’s lyric exposes a married man, who admits to his spouse that he “ain’t never gonna change.”

“Bitter/Sweet” is another country-leaning track, this time about a man who loves a woman that doesn’t change. “I might get bitter,” he praises her, “but you’ll always be sweet.” 

One called “Human Condition” expresses Miller’s pessimism “The human condition is misery,” Miller tells us over a rumbling rhythm, “You’re crying the moment you come out.” It’s the album’s default title track, as Miller asks that he (the messenger) not be killed– just for being the bringer of bad news.

Accompanied sometimes by only an acoustic guitar, Miller adds to the negativity by expressing doubts about the existence of heaven.

“There’s no heaven/Just a big blue sky,” he tells us. Nevertheless, he sings, “You might live forever/One can only hope.” YOU can hope, but one picks up quickly that Miller doesn’t share this same hope. Despite this track’s overwhelming downer mood, it still has some wonderfully jangly electric guitar work. 

You may not like Miller’s message, but he’s just calling ‘em as he sees ‘em. Even if you don’t agree, though, there’s no disputing the quality in the songs that deliver this somber message. It’s one strong set of songs from a man that (along with Old 97’s output) seems to have a boundless supply of wonderful songs in him.