Grinning Like an East Nashville CatFeatured, Music — By Anthony Easton on April 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm
The idea of Nashville as slick and inauthentic, the place with dudes in 300-dollar blue jeans stringing tourists along and shucking them out of money, is well known; and so reviewing a Todd Snider album is an exercise in trying to avoid writing about how he isn’t the standard Nashville fellow. On several albums he even makes the argument himself, talking how the “East Nashville Skyline” was different from Music Row, a place for all kinds of Nashville assholes to be fully and completely discussed.
From its title onward, the new album stakes its place away from the east Nashville skyline. It’s called Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, an album of stories for the old hippies, the dead wood of the dead heads, the philosopher kings and the clown princes, the string of people following the new weird America — from Portland down to San Francisco, across to Boulder or Denver, down to Nashville in time for Bonnaroo before moving to Austin. Snider is all of this — he grew up in Portland, then spent time in Memphis and Nashville, wrote stories with John Prine, and eventually hung out with Jerry Jeff Walker in Austin. Agnostic Hymns pushes the edges of country and the edges of geography; it is closer to Prine or Walker than to other country songwriters.
Snider is heavily ironic, wry, sarcastic. He writes some of the great country one-liners and these songs have some angry edges — for example, “We still need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich” or “Good things happen to bad people” or “I might have been born yesterday, but I was up all night” or “Everything in moderation, even moderation I suppose.”
The first song on album, the first hymn or perhaps fable, is a discussion of the implications of the Cain and Abel story. Snider imagines Cain as the first Baptist evangelical, a self righteous prick and a slick used car salesman who sells luck as self-examination. It resembles Randy Newman before he scored Disney films and lost Academy Awards, suggesting that Snider seeks to cash in not only on his cult status, but the cult statuses of those who went before.
Including those who went before musically — so Snider makes solid examples of talking blues, Western swing, and indie rock ballad. Work that could be constructed as much by Jerry Jeff Walker or Billy Joe Shaver as by Bill Callahan of Smog or David Berman of the Silver Jews. The difference is that Snider is more of an ironist than any of those mentioned. It is not only the one liners, the self aware jokes, that mark him as an ironist; it is the solid moral sensibility. He is shocked still, or at least does a good job convincing people that he is shocked, at the social control of capital, the nature of violence, the grinding inequality of poverty, or at how erotic ennui results from rejection.
It’s well written. Often funny. Occasionally constructed in ways that are tight and interesting. But you suspect when he is going to rev up his vocals, and then he does; or you have an idea when he is going to start riding hard on the harmonica, and the harmonica comes exactly when you expect, and you know what the morals of the songs about Nashville are going to be — and so there is little surprise. Delight, pleasure, solid one liners, and a lingering enjoyment of a voice who knows its history — none of those things are to be sneezed at, all of those things are in short supply, and novelty for the sake of novelty would be its own problem. All of that qualified, one suspects that he is singing for his own audience, and the audience knows what it wants, and so he will stay in the east Nashville ghetto, and I will hear a new Todd Snider album every year or so and carefully annotate the good lines and the interesting musical choices, and it seems churlish to be bitchy about stability instead of novelty.