Growing up is hard to do in rock 'n' roll. It's tough to maintain the exuberance and cocky self-assuredness that got you through your teens and 20s, especially when you're on the road for weeks or months at a time. Once you hit 30 or so, you start getting "mature"—writing introspective songs, recording acoustic albums, going solo. In short, you get boring.
That's what seemed to be happening with the Old 97's a few years ago. The band's morose 2004 album Drag It Up, recorded as the band members were entering their mid-30s, was bookended by singer/guitarist Rhett Miller's solo albums The Instigator (2002) and The Believer (2006), and plenty of fans and critics wondered about the future of the twangy Austin, Texas, power-pop quartet. Drag It Up was, in fact, kind of a drag. Guitarist Ken Bethea noted the difference between Drag It Up and the band's earlier work in a post on the Old 97's website around the time it was released: "Whereas Too Far to Care was an idealistic album made for big cars and air guitars, Drag It Up is better served by thinking and driving on Sunday afternoons in the middle of nowhere."
That's not exactly a stirring testimony for a record by a band that's known for its bittersweet barroom anthems and amped-up country rock.
So this year's Blame It on Gravity came as a surprising return to the band's late-'90s form, following an only somewhat successful three-record stint on Elektra Records that ended when the label was absorbed in the merger of Time Warner and AOL. With a little bit of Texas twang grafted onto big hooks and crunchy guitar chords and Miller's signature wry lyrics in place, it's both more engaging than Drag It Up and less polished than the pop-oriented Satellite Rides and Fight Songs. Blame It on Gravity sounds a lot like the band's early classics Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care.
"We made sure we had songs with a lot of energy, a lot of what's at the core of the Old 97's," Miller says. "The kind of songs that you get drunk to and bop in a club or theater."
But Blame It on Gravity isn't empty or fluffy. The chemistry for classic pop is never as simple as it sounds, and the band's songwriting smarts speak for themselves in the addictive choruses and chugging rhythms of "Early Morning," "Here's to the Halcyon," "The One," and the slinky, cinematic Tex-Mex number "Dance With Me." And Miller's tendency for clever wordplay—"The lights were low but I was lower" and "I wonder why I'm so alone when I'm so close to you"—don't outstrip the genuine emotional heft of "No Baby I" and "I Will Remain." It's a convincing argument that the best way to grow up is to not think about it and just keep doing what works.
"It's almost unheard of for a band to be together for 16 years," Miller says. "It's been a natural progression for us. It wasn't a master plan to start out as an alt-country band and end up as something else. We're just trying to follow our muse and be true to ourselves.
"None of it is calculated. With Drag It Up, that reflected what everybody was going through at that point. We're beyond our drunken 20s. That album was also sort of like therapy for us. We were coming together after the demise of our major-label deal and the advent of my solo career, so it was a little bit different for us. But we're not going to make that record again. We're young—not just young at heart. We're still young. I'd hate to be boring all of a sudden."
Few people were surprised when Miller kicked off his solo career with The Instigator. (He also released a solo album, Mythologies, in 1989, when he was 18.) Miller had always been the chiseled pretty face of the band and its principal songwriter, and the group seemed frustrated around that time with the expectations and complications of being signed to a major label. Miller says he ignored the speculation about the future of the Old 97's during the four-year gap between albums, and he won't let it bother him as he prepares for his next solo album. "I'd go crazy if I worried too much about it," he says. "We're clicking together so well musically and getting along so well personally, I don't want to interrupt that. But I've also got a record's worth of solo material.... I try to do the right thing for myself and at the same time you try to make the best music you can for the fans."
Besides that, he says, sometimes the guys in the band just don't go for his tunes. "It's different in every case," he says. "The bottom line is the song. I've always written songs that the Old 97's weren't interested in."