Infinite Play: Old 97’s, “Barrier Reef”

Written by Infinite Play, Music

Dave Lifton deconstructs a number about alcohol-soaked heartbreak from the Old 97’s back catalog. Got something on your mind, Dave?

Too Far To CareWell, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve done one of these. Sometimes I figure out which song I want to write about, but have no idea what angle to take other than “This song rules!” Then another song pops into my head and I think, “That’s the one.” Without getting into the backstory, that’s what happened to me the other day with “Barrier Reef.”

Like nearly all the great early songs by Old 97’s, the beauty of “Barrier Reef” is how it simultaneously works within the confines of country music while standing them on its head. It starts off with a simple guitar riff by Ken Bethea, followed by the rhythm section of drummer Philip Peeples and bassist Murry Hammond crashing in with a loping shuffle. If that wasn’t enough to scream “COUNTRY!” Rhett Miller’s lyrics seal the deal.

The Empty Bottle was half-empty
Tide was low and I was thirsty
Saw her sitting at the bar

Isn’t that perfect? Within the first 25 seconds, you’ve got a bar with a great name for the local honky-tonk, and a girl just waiting for some guy to put the moves on, which is what Rhett does in the second verse.

So I sidled up beside her
Settled down, shouted “Hi, there!
“My name’s Stuart Ransom Miller
“I’m a serial ladykiller”

Only guys who look like Rhett Miller can get away with lines as cheesy as that and have them work. It also helps when she responds with “I’m already dead.” In the third verse, they dance all night, then decide to get the hell out of there as the song builds up to the chorus.

What’s so great about the Barrier Reef?
What’s so fine about art?
What’s so good about a Goodtimes Van
When you’re working on a broken, working on a broken
Working on a broken man?

Turns out the self-proclaimed “serial ladykiller” is anything but. The lyrical shift is matched by the music, as the guitars kick in and Miller’s tone changes from seductive to desperate. After the guitar solo, Miller tells us what went wrong.

My heart wasn’t in it
Not for one single minute
I went through the motions with her
Her on top and me on liquor
Didn’t do no good
Well, I didn’t think it would

Remember that classic scene in Say Anything… where Lloyd’s friend tells him that, in order to get over Diane, he needs to “find a girl that looks just like her, nail her, and then dump her?” Thankfully, Lloyd didn’t take his advice, but Miller apparently did, and it turned out as well as expected. But at least he got laid, right?

As great as “Barrier Reef” is on its own, it works best in conjunction with “Timebomb,” the song that precedes it on the band’s 1997 Elektra debut Too Far to Care. “Timebomb” features Miller crazy about a “stick-legged girl” who’s “gonna kill me/and I don’t mean softly.” So when “Barrier Reef” comes in immediately afterward, it comes across as the aftermath of “Timebomb,” and forms one of the great one-two punches for an album of the past 15 years.

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