Last year’s Old 97’s record, Most Messed Up, was a raucous, ribald chronicle of abject drunkenness and reckless confessions that bristled with unpleasant personal truths. Frontman Rhett Miller continues harnessing that freewheeling honesty on his excellent new solo album, The Traveler, but casts a more forgiving eye toward unruly behavior and judgment lapses. “Wicked Things” admits to indiscretions, but the secret shame is shared between two people, while the frustrations detailed in “Escape Velocity” stem from circumstances out of the narrator’s control, and the poetic waltz “My Little Disaster” is a tender, whimsical snapshot of a misguided romantic dalliance.
In many other moments, The Traveler feels like the morning-after clarity gained in the aftermath of Most Messed Up’s debauchery, whether it’s the rueful acknowledgment that restlessness is deadly to a relationship (“Wanderlust”), the cold, hard realization that a relationship is irrevocably destroyed (“Dreams Vs. Waking Life”), or a lighthearted love song tinged with pleas for forgiveness (“Most In The Summertime”). The latter song’s loose-limbed tempo and jaunty piano embody The Traveler’s easygoing vibe, which emerged because of Miller’s nimble recording process this time around: He spent just a week at Portland’s Jackpot Studios, and tracked this music live with the Americana band Black Prairie, whose lineup also features multiple members of the Decemberists.
Unsurprisingly, this collaboration resulted in songs that are urgent and convivial. Fiddle, piano, accordion, and acoustic guitar combine with evocative percussion to create riotous twang-pop, brisk folk, and rollicking bar-band rock. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck contributed overdubs later, which add even more velocity and color: His ornate mandolin duels with accordion and fiddle on the swaying sea shanty “My Little Disaster,” while his jangly guitar riffs buff up the taut rockers “Jules” and “Kiss Me On The Fire Escape.” Yet even the record’s more subdued moments are spirited: “Wicked Things” pairs whispery acoustic guitars beneath a prominent fiddle, while the unsettled maritime nightmare “Dreams Vs. Waking Life” has a bridge driven by eerie orchestral and percussive cacophony, and a roiling instrumental underbelly with seething accordion. Although The Traveler is a Miller solo vehicle, the chemistry he has with Black Prairie is what makes the album such a rousing success.