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Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is Todd Snider’s inspirational album.
“I want to inspire people,” Snider says. “I want to inspire them to leave home, to do things traditionally considered wrong. If you listen to my record and vandalize your school, godspeed. If you listen to my record and punch your stepdad, thank you, you’ve made me feel better about what I do. I don’t believe in the American dream, and family values can suck my asshole’s balls.”
Snider says this while smiling, because he says most things while smiling, because he knows family values are unlikely to do such a thing, and because he’s on the happy back end of happy hour at a favorite East Nashville bar. He’s laughing but not necessarily kidding, and Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is anything but a nice, folk/Americana troubadour album.
It’s not a nice anything.
It is jagged, leering, lurching and howling, and filled with unhappy endings both experienced and intimated: “It ain’t the despair that gets you, it’s the hope,” he sings in the album-closer, “Big Finish.” That Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is also roaringly funny is tribute to Snider’s unique sensibilities, and to his standing as what Rolling Stone magazine calls “America’s sharpest musical storyteller.” Anguish without laughter is boring, like intensive care without morphine, and Snider has never been within 100 miles of boring. Also, he didn’t earn the attention, friendship and fandom of American musical giants like Kris Kristofferson and John Prine by writing mopey protest songs.
Anyway, these aren’t protest songs. They’re inspirational. We’ve covered that already, right? It’s populated mostly by losers in the midst of losing, with a couple of spotlight appearances from the humbly anointed 1 percent. At album’s outset (“In The Beginning”), Snider credits the church with sustaining peace by noting that “We still need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich.” From there, it’s on to the certainty of warped karma (“Good things happen to bad people,” he sings in “New York Banker.”), to a remarkable reworking of “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” (possibly the album’s most acerbic song, and from the pen of Jimmy Buffett... no, really), and a slew of stories inspired by the world at large, writ small and barbed, in a manner both penetrating and empathetic. There’s one happy love song, called “Brenda,” about Snider’s favorite couple, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.
“I admire that relationship a lot,” Snider says. “What Mick and Keith have is real, and it can’t be touched and it can’t be beat. I’ve never met them, but I believe in the Rolling Stones. That’s who I think about at Christmas, anymore. They opened their hearts and gave us so much. And they tried to be true to each other.”
Musically, Snider and co-producer Eric McConnell sought a sound that mirrored the times and that didn’t replicate anything they’d done together on critically acclaimed works East Nashville Skyline, The Devil You Know or Peace Queer. With McConnell on bass and Snider playing guitar and harmonica, they gathered a core band of percussionist Paul Griffith, violinist/vocalist (and gifted songwriter) Amanda Shires, and keyboard player Chad Staehly, and offered up a sonic mission.
“I told them I wanted to make a mess,” Snider says. “That was the goal.”
And so a handful of accomplished musicians set about making a mess. And did so. Shires’ violin is the call-and-response heroine to Snider’s lyrics, filling the role Scarlett Rivera filled for Bob Dylan on Desire. Only messier. Meanwhile, Griffith makes like some off-kilter offspring of Keith Moon and Zigaboo Modeliste while Snider’s guitar plays lead switchblade.
The result is something disconcerting, cracked and wholly original. It’s something that stands apart from the music of Snider’s heroes, and from Snider’s own, much-celebrated past. Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is Snider’s 12th album (14th, if we count a “best of” set and a collection of B-sides and demos), and it uses its predecessors not as a compass but as a trampoline. Snider found different song forms, different inspirations (from Alaska ne’er do well Digger Dave to Chicago Mayor, former White House Chief of Staff and friend..... no, really..... Rahm Emanuel) and different means of expression. He paints a world where begging turns to mugging, where investment turns to ruin, where babies grow into felons, where honesty is blunt trauma: “Wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldn’t hurt you, too,” he sings. And there’s no way.
“This record doesn’t come from good times,” Snider says. “I wanted to sound the way I feel, which sometimes means sounding like a broken soul. I don’t want to talk around the vulnerable parts.”
Snider doesn’t talk around the vulnerable part, or the angry part, or the part about how everything we’re taught about goodness and righteousness and capitalism, about God and family values winds up exploding into violence and chaos, wonder and longing. He doesn’t talk around how the whole deal is enough to make you vandalize your school, punch your stepdad, or make lewd suggestions as to just what family values might do in their spare time. And he doesn’t talk around the part about how he doesn’t know any more than you do about any of these things, or the part about how he might be wrong. It’s just that nothing has been delivered yet, nothing revealed. It is, as he sings, too soon to tell.
Here are 10 new songs for the waiting room. They’re here to inspire.