A great many of Rhett Miller's songs deal with a guy who has a wandering eye when it comes to relationships, and some problems with commitment. It would appear this is not an autobiographical conceit, since by all accounts Miller is a happily married husband and father. But it is worth considering that while his band, the Old 97's, has had the same lineup since 1993, Miller has used a wide range of collaborators since he launched his solo career in earnest with The Instigator in 2002. One could read into this that Miller's solo work is where his muse gets to play around on the side, and for 2018's The Messenger, he's found a new creative paramour in Sam Cohen, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who previously worked with Yellowbirds and Apollo Sunshine. Cohen produced The Messenger and plays most of the instruments -- Brian Betancourt handles the bass, Ray Rizzo plays the drums, Miller strums acoustic guitar and sings, and everything else is Cohen's doing. With Cohen at the controls, The Messenger calls up a little bit of the twangy side of Miller's personality, especially when the steel guitar begins to cry on "Bitter/Sweet" and "I Can't Change." But for the most part, The Messenger is an exercise in cool but committed indie pop, as Miller usually delivers on his solo LPs, and Cohen helps give the tracks a suitably moody, late-night sensibility. "We're in Trouble" sounds like a loving homage to Big Star's Third, "Total Disaster" is scrappy rock with a lo-fi overlay, "Wheels" is fueled by sharp guitar lines and a slinky R&B groove, and "Permanent Damage" is as bitter a kiss-off as Miller can summon, fused with plenty of crashing drums and slashing guitars. As a vocalist and songwriter, Miller is in solid form here, though as with most of his solo work, this lacks a bit of the heart and soul he brings to the Old 97's. But The Messenger has a stronger individual personality that most of Miller's solo work, and he and Sam Cohen make a good team in the studio. Maybe they should try this again in the future -- assuming Miller is willing to stick with one partner for that long.
© Mark Deming /TiVo