“Some of this trouble just finds me, most of this trouble I earn. How do you know when it’s too late to learn?” Wondering aloud, Todd Snider is often as profound as any long-suffering poet. His casual, off-the-cuff lyricism and his even less deliberate delivery—missed notes, drawling mumbles, barely-there production values—belie the wisdom below the surface. And with The Excitement Plan he has, without any fanfare, without any flash, solidified his place among the masters of the form.
Apart from one undeniable misstep (1998’s uncomfortably derivative rock album Viva Satellite), Snider’s string of top-shelf records and cherished live performances has continued unabated since his emergence in 1994. At his best when at his most down-to-earth, Snider’s gift for unwashed warmth and sly humour allows him to pull off impressive feats of bravado. Few performers have ever achieved the degree of familiarity that Snider manages so effortlessly—you feel less a part of his audience than one of his pals. I can’t think of anyone (perhaps his old champion John Prine excluded) who has this kind of effect on listeners, to make you feel like if you dropped by his house he’d smilingly invite you onto the porch for a beer and a long evening of shooting bullshit. It’s extraordinarily winning, and allows him all the leeway he wants. Since he’s your boy, you can’t help but feel involved in what’s going on. You listen, you laugh, you cry, you smile like a bastard at every little offhand gesture. As far as I’m concerned, the guy is critic proof. It’s like trying to find fault with your best friend. He blows it from time to time, but nothing’s ever going to change the way he makes you feel when he comes around.
The Excitement Plan offers a slight change in approach from his last few records (which were lovingly produced by sideman Will Kimbrough ) in that a big time Grammy-winning producer got behind the helm and then, evidently, did very little (or, more accurately, appeared to do very little). Don Was (Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop) has here achieved a masterwork of intimacy. Playing to Snider’s considerable strengths at playful familiarity, Was keeps the flourishes to a minimum, pulling the vocals to the fore and dropping the rest back in the mix. Though the sidemen are illustrious (Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz for God’s sake) they aren’t here to show off, but rather to advance the man at the centre. It all works beautifully.
All, that is, except for the out-of-place mood-shift that is “Don’t Tempt Me”, a rollicking duet with Loretta Lynn that slips in three-quarters of the way through and spoils the flow. One of two tracks here not produced by Was—the other being a tender cover of Robert Earl Keen’s classic “Corpus Christi Bay”—it should have been either re-recorded or excluded all together. This is a small problem, however, given that the quality of the song itself (and the joy of hearing Lynn play foil to Snider’s philanderer) makes up for much of the discontinuity.
The best stuff here is classic Todd Snider. Typically, his narratives revolve around a regular old everyman who gets himself stuck in a tough spot and wonders how it all went wrong. But, as tired as that formula sounds (I mean, that’s the basic recipe for writing a country song, no?) Snider’s unrelenting honesty colours his characters’ narration. No one here blames anyone else for anything. It’s all up to you, he counsels, so you have got to own your actions.
From the opening blues of “Slim Chance” (which riffs on the whole concept of luck, suggesting that you make your own) to a meditation on shame (Greencastle Blues”, in which the guy in the back of the patrol car sighs “I feel like such a fool at my age”), to a goof about a major league pitcher who throws a perfect game on acid (“America’s Favorite Pastime”), the material here is uniformly strong. Lovesick, shambling, rambling along, Snider’s characters come alive and win your attention for their brief monologues before returning to their troubled lives. Wryly funny, Snider looks up at his subjects when most other songwriters might judge them from above. Therein lies the key.
On the standout rock number “Bring ‘Em Home”, Snider reminds his listeners that the troops want to come on back, too (his liner notes explain that “the song used to be about a kid who enlisted in the armed services to make a better life for his family just in time for a war to break out, but he’s getting old now”). Indeed, here is one of the few characters Snider has ever explored who is genuinely trapped by forces beyond his control; he got himself into the situation, but it’s up to us to help him along. So, let’s.
The record ends with the lazy swing of “Good Fortune”, a sweet little goodnight kiss about hope, love, and best wishes. Right back at you, Todd. You can come hang on my porch anytime.