It’s about the sadness of counting nickels and walking out in twilight to the corner market for that glorious 12-pack of Old Milwaukee, the one that can, on any particular night, save your life. It’s about sipping Southern Comfort in plastic go-cups in the back of an old Caddie commandeered by some salty ex-con, zooming dirt roads through dusky junkyards in search of new experiences to etch in memory. It’s about the pal who’s a “living, breathing, fighting country song.” It’s about finding the beauty in the deflated and demoralized and the taken-advantage-of.
It’s also about optimism, compassion and the ache and humor of aging in the struggle to find something meaningful. It’s about never being too old to learn how to feel new things. It’s about song and dialogue and cigarette smoke and, ultimately, redemption (and, yes, the word is chosen carefully).
A Todd Snider record (this is his seventh; fourth for John Prine’s Oh Boy label) works like good Harry Crews fiction; songs brim with these fantastic and droll all-American characters that we all (should) know; those broken on the surface but underneath are heavy with benevolence and heart. It’s no wonder John Prine thinks Snider’s shit don’t stink.
Understand that Snider doesn’t just traffic in melodic fiction; his isn’t the work of some slumming songwriter. No, there’s honesty; Snider’s subjects revolve in his pantheon. It’s a mother lode mined by Dylan and Prine, sure, but it’s modernized with a wink-and-a-nod absurdity and self-effacing wit (stated beautifully in the album’s cheeky title). It’s blues, country, folk and rock ’n’ roll hued with the vaguest hint of traditional gospel, all scrappily pasted together with help from Snider’s underrated guitarist sidekick Will Kimbrough (2004 Americana Music Association Musician of the Year). As a singer, Snider’s voice is as chipped and scruffy as the humanity he sings about.
The apex here is “Sunshine,” a spare guitar and piano teardrop that tells of a guy coming to after a failed suicide attempt (“But closing my eyes now I can see the new sunrise over acres of flowers in bloom”) that works as a confessional metaphor for Snider’s own detox-ward stint. And if the hilarious “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” isn’t a shining manifesto of everything that’s glaringly wrong, then burn down the fuckin’ voting booth. Too, as an elevated songwriter, Snider doffs his hat to those who can articulate his own sensibilities, hence the trio of select covers (including Billy Joe Shaver’s chicken-clucking “Good News Blues,” a song Snider choose because it kept “that guy from shooting me.”)
We need storytellers like Snider (and Peter Case and Steve Earle) to offset major label frat-happy shams like John Mayer and Jason Mraz. In short, Snider might just be the tallest tree in the goddamned forest, a flawed and beautiful fucker. If you don’t believe us than just ask Kris Kristofferson. Old Cisco Pike knows who’s what.
Todd Snider appears at the Michigan Theater (603 Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8480) with Yonder Mountain String Band on Sunday, Oct. 17.
Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.