Like many of the finer things in life, Rhett Miller—alternative country/Americana prince—has only gotten better with time, evidenced by his newest solo album, The Traveler (with Black Prairie). Listeners familiar with both the music Miller has made with his Old 97’s bandmates—with Murry Hammond on bass guitar (and occasional lead vocals and backup vocals), Ken Bethea on lead guitar and backup vocals, and Philip Peeples on drums and backup vocals—along with his solo career will notice a transition.
Where the Old 97’s began with a basic—yet uniquely their own— alt-country/Americana sound, they have progressively grown more rough-and-tumble with each album. The Old 97’s latest album, Most Messed Up, includes catchy tracks like “Let’s Get Drunk & Get it On” and “Most Messed Up,” the lyrics memorable and showcasing the band’s songwriting virtuosity with phrases like “I know it’s not fair I had a head start / there’s only so many words you can rhyme with heart / well I used ‘em all up yeah I wrote ‘em all down.”
The Traveler, on the other hand, is a departure from the gruffness of the most recent Old 97’s album, as Miller (with backup from Black Prairie, which includes several members of The Decemberists) explores themes of travel (literally and figuratively). Though labeled as a ‘solo’ album, in no way was this album a solitary effort. Smooth harmonies from Black Prairie occur throughout the album, and Peter Buck (previously the guitarist of R.E.M.) assisted in the collaboration. By enlisting the help of Buck and members of Black Prairie, Miller was able to achieve a different, softer sound that highlights Miller’s songwriting abilities and Black Prairie’s musical dynamism.
Yet, despite the audible distance Miller is putting between The Traveler and Most Messed Up, and though he enlisted the talents of Buck and Black Prairie, tracks from Miller’s newest album often seem to echo songs past. The Traveler offers listeners the essential Rhett Miller a la the Old 97’s, but a softer version; for example, the second track of The Traveler, “Jules,” is reminiscent of the Old 97’s “Salome” (from their 1997 album Too Far to Care), and the elements of “Barrier Reef” (also from Too Far to Care) seem to softly reverberate through “Most In the Summertime.” Despite the familiar feel of many of the tracks and the similarity of cadence between this album and Miller’s previous work, the dynamism of Black Prairie shines through. “My Little Disaster,” for example, has Black Prairie’s beautiful instrumentation, which perfectly accentuates Miller’s vocals, and a lovely harmony curtesy of Black Prairie shines through on many of the album’s tracks.
Among the somewhat reflective tracks, “Kiss Me On the Fire Escape” is wonderfully self-aware, Miller crooning, “You and me we are just people in a song.” We find numerous, similar self-aware, contemplative gold nuggets throughout the album, especially in “Jules,” when he sings, “There is happiness and then there’s this / Whatever this may be.” It is his sometimes sardonic and often hilariously ironic lyrics, familiar vocals, and collaboration with Black Prairie, which make this album one of Miller’s best and most exciting solo albums so far.