When I saw Mike Ness perform in Chicago three years ago, he had stiff competition that night: on TV was the first episode of the new American Idol season. Of course, it’s not like most of the audience felt there was a difficult choice to make (there was beery approval when the opening band’s lead singer, a sort of real life Dewey Cox, said “those pussies in Rascal Flatts make the Monkees sound like the Rolling Stones”). Later that night, Ness burned through hits and deep cuts alike but previewed no new songs, which makes Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes that much sweeter.
For the past several years, fans have watched this American idle, taking a backing band on solo tours but never collecting Social Distortion for more than a one-off song (the greatest hits incentive “Far Behind”). Social Distortion’s last album, Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll, was released during the end of Dubya’s first term. The one before that, at the end of Clinton’s.
Whether this is a predication of a second Obama run is anyone’s guess. But unlike their sonic relative Bad Religion, who weave harmony-laden punk with political discourse, Social Distortion play the vocally-inclined auto mechanic act close to the chest like a scrawled diary (“what the hell is a blog?” they’ll ask). It may be 2010, but Ness and the boys have felt no need to change so much as their brand of shoe shine, let alone the distribution method. Forget pay-what-you want; Mike Ness will tell you what you’re paying, and you’ll cough it up. There’s no deluxe edition with a DVD and a sticker of bassist Brent Harding’s childhood pet; no cutting edge marketing plan; not a single note debuting on Facebook — just a diamond-solid collection of 11 songs rolling into stores on a physical CD in the dead of winter.
But if you took this as an indication that Ness was grizzled beyond repair and out of fucks to give, think again, compadre. Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes was worth a seven-year wait, and the songs speak loudly enough for Social Distortion’s entire discography, brave new worlds be damned. Each track sounds meticulously crafted, down to the crashing cymbals and feedback closing out first single “Machine Gun Blues” — which should have been around a decade ago to soundtrack one of those Tony Hawk video games. If you liked Social D in 1990, 1996 or 2004, it’s almost scientifically impossible to dislike Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes.
Worry not, fans of musical diversity; there’s more than leathery punk with a patent number on display here, and the influences get equal billing, from Cash to Clash. For all the permanent sneer and drive-by swagger which the band is known, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes gets off to a rather modest start, first with opening instrumental “Road Zombie” — a hair-greased groover with snakebite blues guitar but no lyrics to drive it home — then “California (Hustle & Flow)”, which should have Bob Seger feeling like a beaming papa after Kid Rock exhumed his huffy, flour-soul style. “Road Zombie” and “California” are infused with enough melody to stun an ox, but they pale in comparison to the rest, whether in the surging hope of “Diamond in the Rough” or “Bakersfield”, which descends from “Ball & Chain” to continue a distinguished tradition of evoking empty barstools and tear-filled pint glasses (complete with an irony-free “Real Men of Genius” talking bridge).
On an album stuffed with them, Hard Times‘ far and away highlight is “Far Side of Nowhere”, which stumbles out into the sun from the same bar that birthed the Nightcrawlers’ “Little Black Egg” and sugared-jangle outfits like the Shoes and the Smithereens. Underscoring the song’s uncle-friendly leanings, Ness recalls his morning routine (“I wake up, drink my coffee / put on my pants, and comb my hair”), but yearns to break free of that more intangible ball and chain by driving until both tank and wallet are dry. “We can run to the far side of nowhere / we can run ’til the days are gone,” he courteously persuades his girl, even though he’s ready to make good on that declaration with or without company.
It’s certainly a big responsibility being the face of Social Distortion. The changing lineups and fixed songwriting duties have Ness carrying the weight of Social D the way Jeff Lynne did with ELO, responsible for creating a specific sound no matter who’s in the room. There’s only one new member since Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll, but it won’t show, as all members play their part like well-taught theater kids in a Stephen Sondheim musical. Ness strains to hit some of the album’s higher notes, but nails every one. As with those notes, he’s made it to the top, snagging the dream job of a thousand YouTube crooners as the idol we know we too can be.
“What’s life without a little pain?” he asks, having been able to enjoy the former by making money off the latter. Is there anything more inherently “pop music” than that?