“Things happen in this album besides you being told that war is wrong, with a beat ... I don’t know that war is wrong. I just know that I’m a peace queer, and I’m totally into it when people aren’t fighting, in my home, at the bar where I hang out or in a field a million miles away. It’s a drag to hear that people are punching each other or hurting each other.”
—Todd Snider, in the press materials for Peace Queer
Like any songwriter worth his salt, Todd Snider has engaged in social commentary more than a few times. “The Ballad of the Kingsmen” used “Louie Louie” as a launching pad to examine “won’t someone please think of the children?” reactions to popular culture. “Betty Was Black (and Willie Was White)” looked at the ramifications of an interracial relationship, while “The Devil You Know” sketched a scene in Snider’s crime-plagued Nashville neighborhood, where police helicopters seemed as thick as mosquitos.
He’s even dipped his toes into political waters with “You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)”, a thinly-veiled theory that George W. Bush’s 2000 election victory simply extended a continuum of connections, good fortune, and wiles. On the more humorous side, Snider’s “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White, American Males” offered a litany of stereotypes about the title demographic before ending with a little self-deprecation about “tree huggin’, peace lovin’, pot smokin’, porn watchin’ lazyass hippies like me” for good measure.
Throughout it all, Snider’s rarely been strident. His laid-back persona, combined with what appears to be empathy for his fellow man, gives many of his songs a “we’re all in this together” vibe. That sense of human existence as an organic, communal experience fuels his latest EP, Peace Queer. With the help of folks like Kevn Kinney, Patty Griffin, Will Kimbrough, and others, Snider gives us eight songs that pack more wallop than their laid-back vibe suggests.
While the disc’s title (and cover, depicting Snider being held hostage) seems confrontational in these troubled times, Snider’s own notes for the album show that it’s a more far-ranging treatment than a simple “War is Bad” philosophy.
Peace Queer is a six-song cycle, starting with a song called “Mission Accomplished.” In six sentences, the record goes like this: Here’s the kid being told everything’s going to be great. Here’s the reality of that. Here’s that kid when he comes home a sad and banged-up and angry ‘winner’. Here’s the breakdown of why I think that’s happening. Here’s the guy in our culture that I think is causing that to happen, and it’s not a president. And then here’s what I think is going to happen to that guy. And then we roll credits.
True to his word, Snider takes us through just such a lifecycle. “Mission Accomplished (Because You Gotta Have Faith)” mixes a Bo Diddley beat with a boot camp marching cadence to tell the tale of a man who walked out of a military recruiting office working for a man who couldn’t quit lying. Taking a left turn, though, Snider enlists Griffin’s help for “The Ballad of Cape Henry” (about an old maritime battle) and a pensive take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s timeless “Fortunate Son”. Snider does revisit current U.S. foreign policy twice more, with “Is This Thing Working?” and “Is This Thing On?”. Each turns a bully/victim relationship on its head as a metaphor for, presumably, the situation in Iraq.
The album’s heart, though, may lie in two portrayals of a normal guy, in “Stuck On the Corner (Prelude to a Heart Attack)” and “Dividing the Estate (A Heart Attack)”. Tearing along on a riff straight out of Paul Westerberg’s basement, “Stuck On the Corner” portrays a man brought to wits’ end by ungrateful children, unfair promotions at the office, and the need to put up a good front for the neighbors. “Dividing the Estate”, on the other hand, offers a nephew’s observations that his uncle’s funeral was attended only by people with a vested interest in the will. As enjoyable as the rest of Peace Queer is, these two songs probably make the most impact, because they’re the most easily relatable. We might not be able to control what our leaders do, or what goes on in the world around us, but we do have control of our own lives and the legacies we leave. It’s this Will Rogers-like emphasis on the common man that’s always been Snider’s strength, and it certainly comes through here.
Oh, and it’s a free digital download from Snider’s website until October 31.