Certain Songs #1386: Old 97’s – “Murder (or a Heart Attack)”

Album: Fight Songs
Year: 1999

My favorite song on Fight Songs isn’t really a fight song, or even a love song really, and it sure as hell isn’t alt-country either.

What it is, however, is a song that combines both Rhett Miller’s penchant for clever lyrics and his ability to write a plaintive melody line that sticks in your head.

Instead of being about a lover who’s left him, “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)” is all about a pet cat who has run away.

And the hole
In the screen is barely big enough for you
And not near enough for me to go

And the whole damn complicated
Situation could’ve been
Avoided if I’d only shut the window

Look, sometimes you need air, right? In any event, Rhett feels so guilty about the whole situation that he is willing to risk his personal safety in order to afford the cat every opportunity to come back home whenever its ready to.

And I may be leavin’ myself open
To a murder or a heart attack
But I’m leavin’ the back door open
‘Til you come back, ’til you come back

And I may be movin’ myself closer
To a real untimely end
But I’m leavin’ the back door open
‘Til you come home again
‘Til you come home again

Also: I feel like one of the mostly unspoken cultural shifts in my lifetime is that pet cats are now more indoor-only creatures than indoor/outdoor creatures. I have absolutely zero proof for this, but it would dovetail nicely with the overall trend towards excessive safety.

All I know is that all of the cats we had when we were growing up went outside pretty much whenever they wanted to — one of whom often slept in the middle of the street, moving only begrudgingly for the teenagers who lived on the street and drove the excessive speeds that teenagers drive.

Somehow that cat lived to die of natural causes, and his propensity to lay in the middle of the street became a running joke among the people who might have accidentally killed him. This was all a very long time ago — mid-1970s, as a matter of fact — and by the turn of the century, when “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)” was written, there was definitely a shift, as Miller finds himself the object of scrutiny from his neighbors.

And I told
The neighbors, I put pictures up
And handed out some flyers at the show

And the whole town speculating
Situation could’ve been
Avoided if I’d only shut the window

Helping the situation anyway he can is guitarist Ken Berthea, who starts the song off with an big hook that echos the melody line of the chorus, and when it comes time for the guitar solo, takes off in unexpected directions.

“Murder (Or a Heart Attack)” doesn’t ever let us know if the cat came home, and as someone who has been in the same situation, I’m just going to assume that it did.

“Murder (Or a Heart Attack)”

“Murder (Or a Heart Attack)” performed live in 2014

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