He's a Believer

After years in the alt-country outback, Rhett Miller makes good on his pop promise

At the heart of glam rock, though, is the punchy "rock" part, and Miller initially envisioned an album of more straight-ahead, punk-influenced material. But as he wrote, the sounds in his head morphed. Tunes like "Come Around" have the bittersweet lyrical content of his older material, but with a softer, undeniable pop sheen. The melodies are simple, but deceptively so, like the best songs by Bowie or Bolan. The prettiest of the lot, by Miller's reckoning, is "Brand New Way," a track he says with ample assurance, "wouldn't be on a punk record."

Even Miller's image has become more refined. He's shed the blocky glasses that were his trademark in the early days of the Old 97's. The publicity photos for The Believer show him lounging in a dandy's velvet blazers. He's grown his hair into a shiny mane. Like his glam idols, he's startlingly pretty.

But for all the sweet sounds of The Believer, the title track was actually borne out of something quite ugly: the 2003 suicide of Elliott Smith. It's a fact that is prominent in the album's publicity material, and thus it's the elephant in the room every time Miller discusses the album. The song itself starts out with typical Smith hushed tones and a tinge of piano, then plunges into a soaring guitar chorus more typical of the rest of the album.


Rhett Miller performs at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, February 16, at Studio A, 60 NE 11th St, Miami. Admission is $15. Call 305-358-7625 or visit www.studioamiami.com for more information.

"Honestly I wasn't terribly close to him," Miller says. "I knew him during the L.A. period leading up to his death. But to say that not many people had the kind of quality he had is an understatement [Being around him] was very moving and I was always inspired by him."

At the same time, Miller says, some of Smith's inspiration was cautionary, a bracing lesson "not to give in to my darker side."

Miller is quick to point out the album is not all about Smith. Nor is the song itself. Miller saw certain parallels between his own life and Smith's. He's candid about his demons; he mentions an early teenage suicide attempt. Still, he insists that Smith's suicide was for him an impetus to write rather than an excuse to brood. The song came to him "at a time when I was trying to find a reason to put myself out in the world again."

For someone so candid and self-aware, Miller sounds stumped when asked why. He pauses, even chuckles quietly.

"Wow, it's rare to be asked a new question in an album cycle," he begins after a moment. "Compulsion? Narcissism? Contractual obligation? But I believe in music, personally and globally. It's always helped me, and I feel that I have something to offer. It's this thing I just cannot seem to stop making."

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