“Oh, Death” – Game Theory

I wasn’t familiar with Scott Miller’s music during his lifetime. The first time I visited his website, this note from webmaster Sue Trowbridge appeared at the top of the homepage: “I wish it weren’t true, but as much as it pains me to write these words, Scott passed away on April 15, 2013. He was a wonderful, loyal friend as well as a brilliant musician, and I will miss him for the rest of my life. Scott had been planning to start recording a new Game Theory album, Supercalifragile, this summer, and was looking forward to getting back into the studio and reuniting with some of his former collaborators.”

Trowbridge briefly made the entire then-out-of-print Game Theory catalog available to download, and this is how I first listened to Miller’s music. At that point Game Theory hadn’t been a band in almost 25 years. They were a critically lauded Bay Area power pop group with a small but dedicated fan base in the ‘80s, and for whatever reason they never achieved wider fame. In the ‘90s, Miller opted to reboot under a new name, The Loud Family. That group somehow managed to get even less attention, and by the ‘00s Miller decided to call it a career.

In both Game Theory and The Loud Family, Miller made some of the smartest pop music of his or any generation. It’s possible a new record under the Game Theory name could have brought fresh attention to his criminally overlooked oeuvre. Sadly, he committed suicide at the age of 53, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. Work on his Supercalifragile LP had not begun.

Miller may not have had many fans, but the fans he did have include some notable figures in indie pop. Initially an album of covers was considered, but Miller’s widow and The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow decided to attempt something much bolder: making Supercalifragile a reality, using every recorded fragment, lyric and melody scrap available. 

The Kickstarter-funded project was completed in 2017, so amazingly, Supercalifragile now exists. Recorded Miller vocals are present on several songs, while others were completed and recorded entirely by other artists for this album. The Miller-sung tracks vary in quality, with some sounding surprisingly polished and others clearly not ready to be heard. The songs without Miller vocals are uniformly brilliant though, the result of talented songwriters working to complete Miller’s work out of pure love and respect. 

Ken Stringfellow, Will Sheff and Matt LeMay particularly excel on three tracks, “Kristine,” “Valerie Tomorrow” and “Always Julianne,” songs Miller wrote for his wife and two daughters, respectively. But the most powerful may be “Oh, Death,” co-written and performed by Ted Leo. 

“Oh, Death” begins with a verse about a frightening medical episode involving Miller’s wife, and ends with what I assume is a Leo-penned verse that acts as a meta-assessment of this project in the wake of Miller’s own tragic end. I asked Ted on Twitter how much material he’d had to work with on this song. He responded: “Scott left a voicemail of the chorus melody and some lyric fragments. It all sang to me, though.”

The album barely got any attention, but it’s a Game Theory record, so of course it didn’t. Regardless, that we have Supercalifragile at all is an incredible testament to the love for Scott Miller that endures in the pop community he inspired.