Over the last handful of years, the Old 97s have gone from playing rock-ish country music to slightly country-ish rock music, to pop-ish rock that doesn’t resemble country but still has that genre’s grounded, real-life air about it. Their fifth album Satellite Rides retains the pop sheen of 1999’s Fight Songs, but lyrically is closer to their earlier work, and includes a few songs where they’re pushing into entirely new directions.
Old 97s songs are, generally speaking, melodic story-songs about the lovesick, the lonely and the wild, told with a certain wise-guy literaryness by lead singer Rhett Miller. The band’s lyrics have always been one of their strongest point — Miller has a knack at subtly throwing all sorts of witty phrases at you — yet their musicianship is also always superb, and they know how to not only craft a killer melody, but deliver it in an energetic, rocking way. With Fight Songs, there were times where the lyrics came off as a bit dumbed-down, where it seemed that they were sacrificing lyrical content for pop hooks. This was especially true of the catchy but insipid single “Nineteen”. There are a few songs on Satellite Rides where the same problems crop up (“King of All the World”, “Bird In a Cage”, “Nervous Guy”), but here the songs rock enough to save listeners from boredom.
The rest of the album is absolutely first-rate Old 97s. They’ve found a way to take the best qualities of their first three albums, especially the capacity to communicate genuine emotions through people-centered songs, and blend it with the pure pop bliss that they’ve more recently come across. Songs like “Rollerskate Skinny”, “Buick City Complex”, “What I Wouldn’t Do”, “Designs On You” and “Book of Poems” are hyper-catchy pop-rock songs with nuanced, original takes on human relationships. There’s also two fine songs sung by the band’s other vocalist, bassist Murry Hammond. Usually his songs are the most traditional country numbers that the band has. Here he surprises twice — once by blending a country campfire mood with a rocking, melancholy pop song (“Up the Devil’s Pay”), and then by delivering one of the strongest, most power-pop songs the band has done to date, “Can’t Get a Line”.
Underneath the surface of the typical Old 97s song perspective, that of a wise-ass but heartbroken traveling rebel, has always been twin layers of deeply felt sadness and romantic optimism. Both come out on a trio of songs in the middle of Satellite Rides which take the band into deeper emotional territory than they’ve ever been, and thus the most affecting songs on the album. “Question” is a stunning love ballad, without any winks or nudges, and no “I’ll stump a mudhole in your heart”-bitterness underneath. It’s beautiful, straightforward and touching. Equally touching is “Am I Too Late” (as in “Am I too late to tell you that I love you?”), a rocking ode to a recently deceased, unrequited love: “Now I hear you have gone to Heaven, and if there’s one I’m sure that’s where you are / Maybe you’re the new star in the night sky, right outside the moon roof on my car.” The last song in the trio is “Weightless”, both a poetic meditation on the after life and an impassioned wish for peace in a tumultuous love relationship.
These three songs highlight the best of what pop/rock music can do, besides pop or rock; here is songwriting connecting to universal emotions in a truly real-world, honest way, without pretense or artifice. They bring to the forefront a quality of the Old 97s that is really omnipresent, the ability to write catchy, rocking songs that also tap into the feelings and experiences of real people.