Rhett Miller, the frontman of the Old 97’s, has written very focused songs and profound words for his band’s records. So the mediocrity of his solo debut, The Instigator comes as a bit of a surprise. Truth is, Miller is very capable of producing better songs than what has come from him on this release. The Instigator has some profound moments on it, but it is cluttered with pieces that don’t quite fit. It’s littered with occasional lyrical mishaps. And, in maybe the biggest blunder of all, it’s got absolutely ridiculous cover art.
The cover is an enigma. It’s a close-up photo of Miller’s unshaven face with a bit of meticulously-styled unkempt hair thrown in for good measure. The comedy does not stop here, though, because the next two panels inside the album also feature Rhett’s unshaven face, and only his face. While this will merely remind most Old 97’s advocates of nothing more than Zoolander, there may be some marketing merit in it for sex appeal and the like.
One of the tracks on Rhett Miller’s solo debut actually features this chorus: “La La La, I’m in love with a four-eyed girl.” It is this chorus that may warrant the album’s glossy bubblegum cover photo of the Old 97’s front man. More hollow thought stems from “I Want to Live,” which musically begins like a John Cougar Mellencamp hit and lyrically ends up sounding like Soul Asylum. He childishly sings, “Here comes me, looking for a kiss,” before repeating “I Want to Live” for what seems like an eternity.
The album’s opener and third track may be among the best in Miller’s canon. “Our love became our love by name, when I wrote it to you in a song” is an example of the candid confessional words that we know Rhett Miller for. It is this candid expressionism that makes “Niteclub” and “Up the Devil’s Pay,” from the Old 97’s Too Far to Care and Satellite Rides, respectively, both four-star tracks. It is this candid expression that is muffled on The Instigator by the occasional appearance of very silly lyrics.
How can songs as good as he’s ever written appear alongside seemingly the silliest ones he’s come up with? “World Inside the World” is smartly dressed up with warm acoustic guitar and subtle Wurlitzer-like organ tones. The melody moves freely about and is reminiscent of the heart-wrenching “Question” from 2001’s Satellite Rides.
Multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion produced the album and he even appears on most of the tracks. A pleasant surprise toward the album’s final moments consists of Brion’s saintly background vocals and two female backups on the vibrant closer, “Terrible Vision.” This number is orchestrated beautifully, complete with pronounced and even spooky percussion. The choruses resonate like sunny pieces from a lost John Phillips composition. There are sparkling moments like these that redeem the record, but the sparkly stuff is too sporadic to really have an impact.
The Instigator often finds the listener wishing for the other gents in the Old 97’s to break out and liven things up. It seems that Miller’s songs may not be able to stand on their own, sans the brilliance that surfaced on “Designs on You” just over a year ago. There are just not enough of the sometimes-beautiful moments on this record, and Miller is capable of a much better debut.