If you caught onto Dead Vinyl a long time ago, you might not have guessed that the frontman of a Stones- and Zeppelin-influenced bar band’s bar band would drop the sort of solo album that is almost guaranteed to give you a case of what I think of as “the feel-good sads,” but that’s pretty much exactly what Hayden Miller has done.
On his nine-song LP Bartalk, Miller eschews the R&B grooves and greased-lightning riffage of his long-running rock ’n’ roll outfit for the mid-tempo piano bounce and lush, complex arrangements of late-period Beatles and early Elton John. With the help of songwriting partner Nolan Roberston and producer Taylor Tatsch (Maren Morris, Cut Throat Finches, Shadows of Jets), Miller has created a record that’s as hooky as it is heartbreaking, full of chordal surprises and melodic ideas that put his considerable songwriting chops on full display.
Miller, who sang, drummed, and played piano and rhythm guitar on Bartalk — Robertson and Tatsch also contributed keyboards and guitars — previewed the album in the spring, when he released his first single, a jaunty track about the pains of being broke called “Monaco Daydream,” followed more recently by “Hotel Jumpin’,” a tribute to the sort of drunken hijinks one gets to as part of a touring band. Those two songs, found in Bartalk’s opening third, sort of feel like a continuation of Dead Vinyl’s party-hard vibes, but in the context of the rest of the album, they make it plain that this record is an intimate meditation on grief.
In broad terms, grief is what you’re left with when the good times are done. I’ve known Miller for over a decade, not so closely that I get all the references in the album’s lyrics but enough that by the time I reached Bartalk’s end, I realized that this record is him not only processing the death of a dear friend — Topher Erickson, who passed away in November 2018 — but the blur and bang of his early adulthood. The reason I say that is that he wrote these songs in a period that began shortly after Erickson’s death through the end of 2020. Miller is in his early 30s — unpacking the previous 10 years gone by is what a lot of us do when we hit that milestone, I guess. Miller told me in February that writing these songs was kind of like having a conversation with Erickson, and making this record finally brought some closure.
In that regard, it’s hard not to listen to the last four songs without a tear in your eye. Even if you never knew Topher Erickson, you probably have lost someone close to you, and as such, you’ve probably contemplated that person’s inner and outer lives. “Maybe one day, you’re gonna find yourself / Free yourself of misery.” That’s a line from “All the Way Gone,” and the way Miller sings it, it’s a lament for everyone who’s ever felt lost in life or ill at ease in one’s own skin. “Dance On My Grave,” has a slide guitar in it that can be easily heard as an homage to Elton John’s Honky Château, but it preps your brain for these lines, about someone dealing with life’s grind with resigned self-medication: “I hope you trust your intuition in this curious condition / And I hope you find your happiness / May your love always be strong / May your courage never fall, my friend / I wish you all the best because we never meant for this / To be like I wish I could say goodbye again / Somehow it feels like you never left.”
Album closer “Good Luck Out There” has a piano and synth intro echoing into what seems like an endless void before Miller sings, “Good luck out there making something of yourself / I know you got the redemption you deserved / There’s a million questions and a million answers / But I know you do the best you can to get along.”
And then a guitar solo builds and soars and fades into eternity. It’s haunting and beautiful and even uplifting as the song disappears into silence, a small comfort about what could lie beyond our last breaths.
Yet part of finding closure with the death of a loved one and the transition from one life stage to the next also includes celebrating the giddy recklessness inherent to both. Miller doesn’t exactly gaze into the rearview with rose-colored glasses — if his lyrics have a filter, it’s definitely the green of a Jameson bottle — but in songs like the aforementioned “Hotel Jumpin’ ” and “Ode to the Owl,” he still shows a fondness for the days of parties past, even if the present is unduly darkened from the ennui engendered by the passage of time. Part of the grieving process is giving equal attention to yesterday’s good times even when the more contemporaneous sadness is at your heart’s core. He touches on this in “Desdemona.” The song’s loping meter and warbling guitar textures limn Miller’s ruminations about loving someone despite the mistakes of their past in a warm, beatific light, a song about unconditional love wrapped in a warm, ’70s-piano-ballad blanket, which brings up this point: Miller, whether he’s belting out soulful bangers in Dead Vinyl or composing these heartfelt salutes to wild nights and bloodshot mornings, knows his way around the classic rock canon. And while actual bar conversations might be shallow and capricious, Hayden Miller’s Bartalk evinces a songwriting maturity that sounds like it’s been waiting in the wings, ready to make its grand debut. Topher Erickson would be proud.
Hayden Miller album release
Thu w/Claire Hinkle at the Boiled Owl Tavern, 909 W Magnolia Av, FW.