Given Old 97’s country roots, you’d be forgiven for giving “Murder (Or A Heart Attack)” a cursory listen and thinking it was just another sad-sack country love song about a guy begging his lover to return. But if you’ve listened to the lyrics more carefully or seen Old 97’s live, then you’ve heard the real story: It’s about a cat. (This also clarifies some lyrics—like “the whole damn complicated situation could have been avoided if only I’d shut the window”—that don’t make a lot of sense for a love song.)
Legend has it that frontman Rhett Miller’s old roommate had a cat named Charlie, who took off one night, leaving Miller in a guilty panic. It also eventually left him with the Old 97’s first radio hit (and Charlie came home, so no sad endings for this love song). In concert, this story always elicits an “awww” from the crowd, probably in part because so many people know the pain of losing a pet, even if that pet has just gone on a three-day bender and comes back safely.
“Murder (Or A Heart Attack)” appears on the 1999 album Fight Songs, which is often criticized by fans for being too poppy—but a pop melody works beautifully with a song about temporary pet-related panic, and it hints that the story doesn’t end with either the murder (presumably by the roommate) or the heart attack (presumably from guilt) mentioned in the title. I can listen all day to heartbreaking love songs, but anything about beloved pets (like the tabby sitting on my lap right now) better have a happy ending.