Rhett Miller and company seem to have finally given up the notion that they'll ever be superstars, either with the Clear Channel/Rolling Stone masses or with the myopic MP3 blog indie hitmakers. They're too smart for the first group and too traditional for the second, although the aggravating alternative-country purists would no doubt scoff at using a word like traditional to describe a band who writes pop songs that occasionally (OH MY GOD) don't feature steel guitar or that Johnny Cash rhythm. I remember the band's former home, Bloodshot Records, getting bent out of shape when they released the song "19," one of the best power pop songs ever. Screw Bloodshot Records. Ever wonder why every band worth its salt leaves your lineup?
At any rate, No Depression has finally closed down, and no one cares about Bloodshot Records anymore. The Jayhawks have broken up, Wilco plays '70s AM pop, and Son Volt's last record is floating in my toilet. All that is to say: No one cares about "alternative country" (whatever that is) anymore; no one but the saddest, most pathetic insurgent hipsters (no doubt wearing bowling shirts and dark blue jeans) are interested in criticizing a band like the Old 97's for sounding too much like The Kinks.
And so the Old 97's decided four years ago to forget about filling stadiums or even theaters and to just have a good time. The result was Drag It Up, a supposed "return to form" that wasn't as good as the form it ostensibly returned to. It was still a fine record, mind you, but it lacked the drive that endears me to records like Fight Songs and Satellite Rides. Is it possible for a band to enjoy themselves and to sound like they have to make the best record of their career?
Apparently so. I think that Blame It on Gravity is my favorite thing they've released so far (except for 1999's Fight Songs, my favorite record of all time by anyone). There's a sense of urgency here, but it's philosophic rather than economic urgency. I get the feeling BIOG could sell fifteen copies and the band wouldn't care, as long as everyone who hears it gets what they're trying to say.
And for such a sunny record (the cover is pretty much exactly what the music sounds like), they're trying to say something awfully dark. I haven't heard a record this obsessed with mortality since Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind--and Rhett Miller is half his age. "The Fool" starts with caffeine buzz and a new life, and then the bomb drops less than a minute in: "He will give her what is left of his life in this mess / Which will end in no time at all." The protagonist's life comes to an end on the interstate, and the only lesson we're given is that "There is love everywhere you go / But it's never enough."
Meanwhile, on "No Baby I," the Grim Reaper leaves a frat party early with a foxy blond, and the Latin lover in lead single "Dance with Me" claims that "the dream don't die / But I do." On "The Easy Way," Miller takes a potshot at the violent Deep Elm culture that allowed a couple of skinheads to put a man in the hospital at a 97's concert, and even the seemingly happy-go-lucky car song "Ride" reveals that we only like to drive because it keeps us from the grave. The album ends with an Elmore Leonard-esque heist story, the band robbing a California bank and not caring who they have to shoot.
As for the music, these songs are as rich and complex as anything the band's ever done, frequently deviating from the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus structure and stretching their melodies into something elastic and wonderful. The Old 97's have always basically been guitarist Ken Bethea's show--Miller's solo records fail because Bethea doesn't play guitar on them--and he's in top form here. His riffs are denser and more angular than they've been in the past: Check out how harsh and loud he sounds on "Dance with Me."
But the shining jewel in this album's crown is bassist Murry Hammond's "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue." Hammond receives only two slots on this album--just like all the other 97's albums--and while his first song, "This Beautiful Thing," is a treacly throwaway, "Lonely Heart" is probably the best thing the band's ever done. It's a slow burn with obtuse lyrics and a snaky melody I can't quite get my head around, but it's all about delivery: Hammond's vocals are as understated as ever, and Bethea's in full atmospheric mode, not so much playing guitar as leaving a thick mist all over everything. I have no idea what the song's about, but I don't care. I don't want to listen to it--I want to crawl inside of it and live there for the rest of my life.
And so if there were any justice in the world, the 97's would be at least as big of stars as Wilco, playing Saturday Night Live and getting Spin covers. But they're not, and they won't be, and I'm really not sure they could have made an album this strikingly dark and beautiful if they were.