“It ain’t the despair that gets you — it’s the hope.”
On Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, Nashville singer-songwriter Todd Snider has opened up a can of bitter. This isn’t to say that his satiric side or self-deprecating tendencies have faded — there just seems to be more for Snider to be jaded about, specifically with unemployment, corporate greed, human exploitation, and the crime these things can bring about. The shadow being cast over Snider’s songwriting conveniently dovetails into the Occupy movements of America, securing the album’s future reputation as likely being more of its time than timeless. Then again, this is the guy who wrote “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues”, so it’s anything but a big deal. What really matters is if Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables truly delivers as a snarky, satiric, and memorable slice of broken down Tennessee folk-rock. It does.
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables was recorded in just one week and co-produced by bassist Eric McConnell. Snider himself wanted something ragtag, telling the studio team that he “wanted to make a mess.” Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is not really a “mess” in the pejorative sense, but it certainly is messy. Amanda “Pearl” Shires’ violin duties were more likely aiming for spirit rather than technique, especially on the faster numbers. Todd Snider’s guitar parts are full of flaws, from dragging behind the beat to flubbed left hand positioning, and his vocals on the incidental love song “Brenda” sound like he recorded them within ten minutes of waking. These kinds of things are distractions only if you frame them as such. It’s not a chaotic mess; it’s a lazy mess — likely what Snider wanted. The overall mix of Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables crackles with more life and dynamics than most steamrolled country-pop, and the quality of the songs further delays the distractions.
Right as you open the door, “In The Beginning” thrusts you into a state of nature where the have-nots first took notice of the haves, thus introducing the idea of organized faith as a tool to pacify: “…Ain’t it a son of a bitch / To think that we would still need religion / To keep the poor from killing the rich?” “In Between Jobs”, aka that lovely euphemism for “I can’t get work”, gives the narrator pause when he considers how far low he would stoop when being down on his luck: “I’m thinkin’ ‘what’s keepin’ me from killin’ this guy / And takin’ his shit'”? The walking hazard telling the story in “Too Soon To Tell” sounds like a walking mess: “I never did like the people where I was employed / They was always out to get me ’cause I’m paranoid / Now I’m workin’ for myself / And that don’t pay a lousy dime / If what we’re here to do is learn to forget / I’m gonna need more time”. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite lyric: “They say that living well is the best revenge / I say bullshit, the best revenge is to win”.
Believe it or not, these are not the most jaded thoughts on the album. That prize goes to “New York Banker”, a nod to the 1% that doesn’t pull any punches or candy-coat a joke about rich people. The song’s subject is a high school teacher patiently waiting for retirement. A banker from the Big Apple comes to a small town, sells the inhabitants faulty bonds, bets his own money against the bonds, drains everyone’s pensions, and leaves. The song ends with the protagonist remaining at the high school. The refrain is a simple, repeating “Good things happen to bad people”. Can you get much more cynical than that?
The recruited band makes good on nursing along the rude, crude arrangements for these tales of recessional despair. Paul Griffith’s drum work is neither sloppy nor precise, making him a perfect candidate for Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables‘s backbone. The rest of the music gets fleshed out with a B3 courtesy of Chad Staehly and plenty of backing vocals from Shires, Mick Utley, and Jason Isbell. The waltzes “Big Finish” and the Jimmy Buffet cover “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” are appropriately rustic, and with ten songs clocking in at 42 minutes, nothing has a chance to go astray.
With a few exceptions, like Snider’s bitching about youths with sagging pants (“Who wears their pants like that? / Come here kids, let me hitch up your britches”), the hard times themes he drags into the light on Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables are universal ones, even though they happened to be framed in a 21st century recession. It’s a niche that a guy like Todd Snider can wear like a glove, and this particular album is an easy fit into his discography. He continues to play to his strengths while further sharpening his edge. And he’s got how many albums by this point?