It's also their raucous, boozy best as a 20th anniversary (or so) album, with some of their sharpest songwriting from beginning to end. Most of the tracks center on shrugging off everything wrong with the world and getting drunk or getting it on instead. It's all in good fun, even if the bandmates admit there is a dark side to it.
Most Messed Up is all of that and more.
Although mostly known as pioneers of the alternative country movement out of Dallas, the Old 97's have picked up more folk rock leanings over the last few years. Led by frontman Rhett Miller, who has simultaneously nurtured a solo country career, the band has never sounded more accessible.
"It's such a reality of life, the question of how bad is drinking and how much horrible stuff in our lives, you know, is it responsible for," said Miller. "I wanted to grapple with that question, and it's something I wonder about in my own life. I feel like I'm on the right side of the line, but maybe a lot of people that aren't on the right side of the line would say that."
Band members Murry Hammond (bass), Ken Bethea (guitar), and Philip Peeples (drums) are all inclined to agree. Tommy Stinson (Replacements) and Jon Rauhouse (Neko Case, Jakob Dylan) might too. They lent some guitar work and lap steel respectively.
The album opens with We've Been Doing This Longer Than You've Been Alive, which extolls and exposes their career as road musicians. There is a feeling of considerable wear and tear on the band members as they inch their way into middle age.
It covers the best, worst, excitement and boredom of it all. But what makes it brilliant is how apparent it is that Miller wouldn't trade any of it, not even for a minute. And he conveys that condition with one of the rawest albums ever put out by the band.
The balance of the album, including a few standouts.
All dozen tracks are well worth the download. Standouts include the unabashed directness and self-loathing alluded to in Let's Get Drunk And Get It On, the youthful exurberance of the barroom folk ditty This Is The Ballad, and the rock and roll swagger of The Ex Of All You See.
But along with those, give a listen to the brutally honest country rocker Wasted and barn burner track Nashville that opens with Miller leaving his wife and his old life for nothing more than the road. Like many of the tracks, it succeeds in sounding punk as much as alternative country rock, without too much overthinking or meticulous editing.
Even Intervention reinforces the idea that there is still some hope to be had after a lifetime of drinking and bad decisions. The fact you can chant that along with them from a barstool makes the whole of Most Messed Up all the more appealing. Somehow the Old 97's make it all sound fun and worrisome at the same time. They regret their choices but celebrate surviving them anyway.
Most Messed Up By The Old 97'S Rollicks 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
While some fans might not like to think of this as the band's best album, there is something about it that immediately clicks as a classic best played live on the smallest stage possible. Even the track Wheels Off has a beautifully unbalanced bounce to it that fits well within an alternative rock catalog.
You can find Most Messed Up [+digital booklet] by the Old 97's on Amazon or download it from iTunes. The album, Most Messed Up by the Old 97's, is also on Barnes & Noble. The Old 97's are touring the West Coast before heading east. Check their current schedule on Facebook.