Rhett Miller is an extraordinarily talented slacker. Since 2000’s Satellite Rides, the best of his pop output with the Old 97s, Miller’s band has issued three good-but-not-great attempts at striking a balance between power-pop and the more raucous brand of roadhouse punk that they perfected on 1997’s Too Far to Care. In the same amount of time, Miller has released three solo albums mining essentially the same territory. It might seem unfair to accuse such a prolific songwriter of underachieving, but Miller’s ability to write a better than average album without breaking a sweat becomes disconcerting when one acknowledges that the man can turn out classics when he actually applies himself. On his self-titled solo album, Miller plays by the numbers, with consistent results, but one wishes he’d aim for the high standards set by his own best efforts.
Rhett Miller‘s greatest strength is Miller’s voice: He can pull off a swooning pop falsetto as well as a richer, somewhat throaty tenor, and he moves ably between them on a number of tracks. His heavy Texan accent only makes his performances more distinctive. Miller has written sharper lyrics, but the ones here are undeniably pungent: “Haphazardly” is an effective tearjerker, “Like Love” cuts its somewhat depressing theme with dark humor, and “Happy Birthday Don’t Die” is simply surreal. On “Happy Birthday,” he spins a sci-fi yarn about a 100-year-old’s space-colony celebration over a backdrop of fuzzed-out guitars. The whole thing builds up to a storming coda that’s more “Wave of Mutilation” than Whiskeytown.
Sadly, that strange standout is one of the only tracks where Miller takes any chances. For the most part, he sticks to his usual themes of problematic women and the boozy men who chase them, accompanied by mixed acoustic-electric rock with a light honky-tonk varnish. Much of the album stays safely in the midtempo range, with a couple of straight-up ballads and a couple of full-on rockers mixed in for good measure. Of the ballads, “Bonfire” is pretty, but also pretty plain; “Haphazardly” is a surer effort, its slow-burning chorus providing one of the highlights of the album. “If It’s Not Love” is the most engaging of the album’s rock songs, with a chorus that sounds oddly like Too Far‘s “Melt Show” played at about half the pace and, unfortunately, with a far smaller fraction of the urgency.
And that’s the real problem with Rhett Miller: Having survived in the music industry so long, Miller has become a professional, and is no longer a hell-raising outsider. He sounds like a pro here too, turning in uniformly high quality performances, but without much thrill or excitement. There’s little on the album that Miller hasn’t done—and done better—before. The good news is that Miller is such a stylish and confident performer that even his less compelling material is easy to enjoy.