Published May 12, 2015Beginning with 2002's The Instigator, Rhett Miller has largely used his solo releases as outlets to investigate a more polished brand of pop music that never quite squared with the Old 97's' rough-edged, twangy rock'n'roll. If the line between Miller's musical worlds became noticeably blurrier on 2012's The Dreamer, The Traveler, his sixth album — fifth if you discount 1989's Mythologies, less a debut album than a set of awkward baby photos complete with Morrissey affectations and a strong British accent — firmly re-establishes the distinction between Miller's solo career and his work with the Old 97's.
The Traveler is the product of a collaboration between Miller and Black Prairie — a side project of members of the Decemberists and Dolorean — with some help from Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. It finds the Texas native stretching the boundaries of his sound in new ways, his typically sturdy songwriting bolstered by unusual stringed instruments (nyckelharpa, marxophone), accordion and the refreshing addition of Annalisa Tornfelt's backing vocals (notably on "Most in the Summertime," the album's breezy first single).
Miller — always a superb lyricist and masterful raconteur of tragic romantic encounters — trudges some well-worn territory on songs like the sweeping "Jules," "Fair Enough" and "My Little Disaster," but it's hard to fault him for returning to this well when it yields results as tuneful as the latter's lovely drunkard's waltz and countless lyrical gems ("There's happiness / And then there's this / whatever this may be"; "She's a short story I never can't tell"). On the beautiful, ebullient "Kiss Me On the Fire Escape," Miller cleverly acknowledges that perhaps listeners shouldn't read too much into how often a happily married middle-aged father of two — even one as youthful-looking as the one-time "serial lady killer" — can keep writing about falling in love or in lust for the wrong women ("You and me we are just people in a song").
The album is most affecting when Miller, or the characters who inhabit these songs, face up to their weaknesses and insecurities: the deceptively upbeat "Escape Velocity" is perfect pop with a dark, nervous undercurrent of frustration ("My head is filled with noises / made and unmade choices / burnin' up my brain"); on bouncy closer "Reasons to Live," Miller's openness about an attempted suicide as a teenager adds depth and poignancy to the singer's words ("Thank god I didn't die / When I wanted to / Thank god I didn't die / I wouldn't have met you").
While Miller continues to produce exceptional work with the Old 97's — 2014's Most Messed Up was one of their finest yet — The Traveler also suggests that he may just be hitting a new creative peak, and it would truly be a shame for both Miller and Black Prairie if this fruitful partnership were to remain a one-off in the singer's rich catalogue. (ATO)