Miller hasn’t quite written his best album with The Messenger, but he’s come close.
Rhett Miller hasn’t quite written his best album with The Messenger, but he’s come close, and he’s revealed the plans for a new era in his songwriting. Miller’s poppier solo material – not unlike his more rocking Old 97’s work – often relies on smart wordplay and turns of phrase. On this new release, he tones down the clever, but his more straightforward writing allows for a direct connection to his always open characters. The songs come from a more mature perspective than we’ve seen, fitting for someone at this stage of Miller’s career, but not always done so skillfully (read: he sounds wise, not old). Combined with obviously catchy melodies, The Messenger marks the start of something new and promising for Miller.
As an opener, “Total Disaster” works either as misdirection or as an comfortable transition. With its girl-group beat, the song has its hooks, but it depicts the Miller type we’ve come to know: a slightly sad and admittedly dangerous boy using both traits to build his charm. By the time he sings “I’m a total disaster” in the chorus, it feels a little rote in his catalog. But there’s a twist in the final verse. Miller mocks his own songwriting, laughing at the mechanics of fitting standard details into an earworm, and the moment almost unnoticeably sets up the sort of perspective contained in the rest of the album.
That reflection returns particularly in the mid-tempo “I Used to Write in Notebooks,” where Miller looks back at what life used to be like. The song begins as geriatric wistfulness for a pre-digital age, but that’s not Miller’s point at all. He makes a self-referential joke about calling to get “the temperature and time” (a nod to the Old 97’s’ “Big Brown Eyes”), but shifts to a more somber take on aging and dying and old relationships, all with a smoothness that prevents treacle.
That darkness moves further forward with “Permanent Damage” and its assertive guitar lines. The song has a touch of the comedic as Miller looks at dream sequences, but the smile fades as the boring nature of relaying dreams stands for human disconnection and our loss of hope. The song would be unrelenting if not for Miller’s bridge in which he refuses to wake up, the slight bit of hope that lends the song a necessary level of irony.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Rhett Miller album without some troubled love songs, and the key one here is “Did I Lose You at I Love You,” but even that’s part of the album’s bigger picture, offset by numbers like “You Were a Stranger” and “The Human Condition,” one of Miller’s best blends of his romantic and realistic sides. All of these tracks build on Miller’s previous pop sensibilities, maybe using piano to a little greater effect at times, but essentially catching all this turmoil and even optimism in hummable phrases, the “catchy tunes” he laughed at in “Total Disaster.”
In it all, Miller moves away from any of his standard characters into a bigger picture that benefits from time’s vision. He might still describe himself as “broken,” as on the closing track, but at the center of the album with “Notebooks,” he’s much more forgiving. “Close Most of the Time” recognizes some of his personal failings and challenges, but here Miller (autobiographical or not, we can guess) gives himself more grace, and revels in the security to be found in family.
As an album, The Messenger fits well into Miller’s solo discography, with a sound not incompatible with any of his past work. At the same time, it offers surprises in perspective. Miller sounds more at home and willing to share more sophisticated perspective. A few more years and this one might be noteworthy as a slight pivot point. He’s likely to find new ways to write from this vantage, keeping the wit and heart and bringing back some of the word games. This far into Miller’s career, it’s hard to imagine the best is yet to be, but that’s what The Messenger tells us.