I had been sitting in a pew in St. David’s Historic Sanctuary for most of the night, resting my feet and back from a long day of bandhopping at SXSW 2012. I had just taken in the Thirty Tigers showcase. So far, it had been excellent, and after all was said and done, the showcase would stand as one of the festival’s highlights for me.
The church, which had seen the crowd vary throughout the night, began filling as Todd Snider’s set approached. I’m sure many were expecting one of Snider’s trademark sets, full of stories and humor. What we got instead was the rare sight of the famously barefoot Snider in shoes, gripping an electric guitar, and backed by a full band. He clearly meant business, and even by the standards of short SXSW sets, his performance was lean, mean, and efficient. Snider tore through songs from his most recent record, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, one of 2012’s best records so far. The record, as its title might suggest, doesn’t shy away from religious content.
Snider didn’t shy away from it on this night, either. Instead, playing songs dominated by snarling electric guitar and keening fiddle, he seemed to grit his teeth, lean into the wind, and dive into it with all the commitment he had. If Snider had simply been singing songs about how God might not be real, or how religion’s a bit of a farce, the whole thing might have seemed edgy and scandalous enough. Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, however, commits the much more radical act of tying religion into the current economic crisis and into class war in general.
Atop the bluesy, lurching-towards-Mammon groove of “In the Beginning”, Snider wove a tale of the poor turning on a local rich man, only to be seduced by the rich man’s claims that the same God who provided his bounty could provide his attackers with the same prosperity — especially if they work for him on the cheap, so that God can see them working humbly. Then Snider brings in the kicker: “Ain’t it a son of a bitch to think that we would still need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich”. He didn’t really take his foot off the pedal, either.
The roof-raising stomp of “In Between Jobs” gave even more edge to lyrics like “[money’s] the root of all evil, I agree / and I suppose the blossom would be my kind of poverty” and “what’s keeping me from killing this guy, taking his shit?”, while the rowdy chorus of “Good things happen to bad people” in “New York Banker” punctuated the tale of a teacher who loses all of his retirement savings to Wall Street shenanigans.
Anyone who’s paid any attention to Snider’s career, shouldn’t be surprised. Gifted with a songwriter’s eye, he’s always told tales of the out-of-luck and the downtrodden. As time goes on, though, he seems to be casting more and more of an eye towards these things in terms of class struggle. It’s always dangerous to guess someone’s politics, especially when you haven’t talked to them about it, but let’s assume that Snider’s not far from the “Tree huggin’, peace lovin’, pot smokin’, porn watchin’ lazy-ass hippies like me / Tree huggin’, love makin’, pro-choicin’, gay weddin’, Widespread diggin’ hippies like me” that he describes in “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White, American Males”.
On 2004’s East Nashville Skyline, “Incarcerated” finds his narrator relating a hard-luck story to a judge. It’s a wry tale told at a breakneck pace, combining half-truths, high-speed chases, and reality TV. It also ends with Snider singing “Nobody suffers like the poor people suffer”. It could be Snider’s narrator adopting a last-ditch Pollyanna tone of high drama, but it could just as easily be the voice of Snider as he tacks on a moral lesson.
On 2006’s The Devil You Know, Snider tells the story (fictional, according to him) of helping a young guy get away from police helicopters buzzing his neighborhood. The song’s full of scathing lyrics, from its beginning (“Helicopters over the house again / We got the projects two or three blocks from here / They pull the kids over for driving while African”) to Snider’s mental picture of the suspect (“Poor kid probably never had a chance to give a fuck / Wouldn’t know good luck from a debutante / He’s gotta find a way to be Steve Mcnair or Young Buck / Or he’s just tough luck looking for a prison to haunt”). Then he casts the net even wider: “There’s a war going on that the poor can’t win / Helicopters over the house again”.
At this point, you could certainly be arguing with Snider’s politics, but it’s worth noting that he’s a resident of East Nashville. A side of town that a real estate agent might tag as something like “blended,” “transitional,” or “eclectic,” East Nashville’s always seemed to me to be an area that’s equal parts grifters, honest folk with an artsy flair, young dreamers who will either make it or be crushed, and people on the downslope who have realized the hardness of the world. That’s a sweeping generalization, but East Nashville is a place where prosperity and hardship overlap in sometimes uneasy ways. As someone with an obvious love of the place, it’s no surprise that someone like Snider would have a great deal of sympathy for those who aren’t doing so well.
Peace Queer (2008) boasts a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”, which was commenting on the advantages of class decades ago. Two originals, though, show Snider also casting a glance inside of the cubicle walls, at those fortunate enough to be working for good wages, and doesn’t see them faring much better in the long run. The narrator “Stuck On the Corner (Prelude to a Heart Attack)” recalls how the VP of Human Resources
Stood up and made a speech
About how we would all have to work even harder now
I thought harder, now, harder than what?
I would give anything to get up and walk but of here but I’m
Stuck on the corner of Sanity and Madness
I’m lookin them over, I can’t see a difference
Makin money out of paper, makin paper out of trees
We’re makin so much money we can hardly breathe
At home, it doesn’t get much better, as he’s trapped in a vicious cycle of struggling to keep his wife and kids happy as they try to keep up with the neighbors. It’s not long before the album moves over to “Dividing the Estate (A Heart Attack)”, in which a nephew remarks, “My mother said when he was younger he was skinnier / And kinder and funnier and humble as a white picket fence / As he got older he got fatter, left his wife for something younger / Started showing up here drunker makin’ less and less sense”. As the song winds down, it adds, “So through the eye of a needle on the camel’s back / The American dream hits the Pearly Gate”.
Most of those songs, though, focus on the poor and the working class as victims of one sort or another, without much chance of changing their station. In those songs, the Captains of Industry and Finance, or whoever else you want to peg as The Man, aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Maybe it’s the financial meltdown, the bailouts that followed, or the anger that fuels the Occupy protests, but Snider’s tone with Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is decidedly darker and more threatening. I don’t mean to say that he’s publishing any kind of manifesto or call to arms — merely that his songs seem to reflect a turning point in the public mindset.
Snider’s long sung about issues of class and the favoritism (or lack thereof) that stem from whatever your station might be. These new songs, though, teem not only with ruminations on violence but on the envy that often lies at its root (“If I had a nickel for every dime you had, I’d have half of your money, you talk about not half bad”). Snider isn’t letting envy off the hook — he’s too good of a songwriter to draw hard and fast lines like that — but he does portray it as a very natural Deadly Sin that comes all too natural to us.
On that night in Austin, Snider received a well-deserved standing ovation. Partly, it was for the quality of his performance, but it was also for the way that these new songs were expertly spliced onto the live wire of how people feel these days. That kind of empathy has always been one of Snider’s strengths, but I think it came as a surprise to many — myself included — just how powerful a weapon that empathy could be when fueled by anger. As we walked out of the chapel, there was the elation that you feel when you’ve just heard someone speak truth to power. But there was also a more troubling thought: If a laid-back hippy sort like Todd Snider finds himself writing such charged songs, things might be even worse than we thought.