Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller's major label solo debut is almost exactly what fans can expect: extremely well-written pop songs, heart-wrenchingly delivered, and brightly produced, making for a fine all-around package. The thing that comes as sort of a surprise is the level of power the missing members of Old 97's would have added if this was a full-band release. While Miller and producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann) have crafted a bright and sonically diverse sound for The Instigator, showcasing Miller's obscenely clever songwriting and swooning vocal style, his individual work is not as strong as any of Old 97's albums. This may be an unfair comparison, since no effort has been made to mask this as a full-band release, but hearing Miller's unmistakable singing and songwriting style without Murry Hammond's backing vocals and the rest of the Old 97's chunky country-rock-pop behind him seems a little less than it could be.
All "could haves" aside, the album on its own is a barrelful of fun. Brion's trademark sonic roller coaster is kept relatively in check until the swirling finale, and the country-rock burners "Our Love" "The El," and the single "Come Around," all sound like Miller and his guests are having a great time. The brightest points come from his explorations into Cars-era '80s pop ("This is What I Do" and the exquisite "Four Eyed Girl"). Although this clean geek-pop veers away from the alt country material he'd perfected with Old 97's, Miller seems to relish the break and really shines in this new light. Comparisons will undoubtedly be made between Miller and Ryan Adams (both of whom have been involved with genre-leading alt country bands and have done solo albums), but while it is arguable that Adams' solo works are as good (if not better) than his work leading Whiskeytown, Rhett Miller's solo turn, while fun and certainly worthwhile, does not overshadow his collaborations with his bandmates. Still, on it's own, The Instigator is a fine album with enough gems to keep fans of the genre going until the next Old 97's release.