Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
From the title, you’d have no idea that Todd Snider’s 12th album was any different from his others, which contain plenty of agnostic hymns and bounties of stoner fables. But it’s keyed lyrically around the economy and musically around Amanda Shires, a helpful vocalist and a relevatory violinist, which in no way means it’s sappy—this is his darkest album ever. Snider’s always been too acerbic, too interested in unconventional angles and unheard jokes, to settle for the country corn he loves sincerely anyway. Even still, the delicately picked “Precious Little Miracles” is jarring, just to hear that confidently mushmouthed voice straining to make a ballad of some high notes he can’t quite chew. If Snider had tons of songs like it, it would be a problem, but it’s an interesting little nugget just for its unusual fragility. If it’s the weakest thing on Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, we’re in good shape.
Except for the Waits-ish “Big Finish” (which is only big in length, really), nothing else on Hymns risks such passivity. For all its bumper sticker potential (“They say that living well is the best revenge/ I say bullshit, revenge is the best revenge,” “They were always out to get me cause I’m paranoid”), this record is urgent, pissed, strident and macabre. The amazing Goldman Sachs antipathy “New York Banker” twists a deserted melody to a totally detuned key worthy of its nightmare moral/mantra: “Good things happen to bad people, bad people, bad people.”
As the murderous “In the Beginning” and unsettlingly plainspoken “In Between Jobs” (“What’s keeping me from killing this guy/ Taking his shit”) attest, this is no escapist fantasy. It’s an Occupier’s Straight Outta Compton, revenge fantasies for people who refuse to have a gun in their home, wrapped in slogans more Public Enemy than N.W.A.: “We’ve gotta try and find some kind of way to cope/ It ain’t the despair that gets you/ It’s the hope.” Even “Big Finish” has a glass-clinker in “Some people won’t take no for an answer/ Hell, some people won’t take yes for an answer.”
Of course, all this shared pain and felt foreclosure would be ineffective if Snider didn’t equally vault to the tender end of the spectrum to gulp some air, melodically (Shires’ sweet, quavery, Cale-like violin on the Stones fanfic detour “Brenda”) and lyrically (“I wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldn’t hurt you too,” on the subsequently hostile “Too Soon to Tell”). Lest you figure him for a middle-of-the-roader or a centrist, Snider has words for you too: “Everything in moderation/ Including moderation I suppose.”