Divergent musical takes on the "Great Recession"
In the summer of 2002, Bruce Springsteen responded to the aftermath of 9/11 with The Rising, a work of well-meaning but often too-generic rock-and-roll uplift that gave him a contemporary relevance he hadn't enjoyed since 1987's Tunnel of Love. Less than a month later, unintentional counterpoint came from another bunch of musical lifers, subsistence-level Brit-punk survivors the Mekons, who surveyed the same world-gone-wrong landscape and responded with grim humor on OOOH!, an album whose how-we-live-now vibe felt more earned and less snatched from the pages of the Times. "Every day is a battle," they concluded with stoic acceptance. "How we still love the war."
This spring, a similar dynamic is in play. The success of The Rising spurred Springsteen, leading to three times as many new albums in the seven years after that comeback than in the seven years preceding it. But none of those post-Rising albums felt as purposeful as Wrecking Ball, as clear a response to the "Great Recession" as The Rising was to 9/11 and similarly one that seeks to provide succor in the face of struggle. "Wherever this flag is flown/We take care of our own," he ostensibly assures the nation at the outset, before closing with titles such as "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "We Are Alive."
But the same day (March 6th) Wrecking Ball was released, another subterranean foil emerged with another unintentional answer. Rather than speaking for a nation on his own "Great Recession" album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, Nashville-via-Memphis singer-songwriter Todd Snider just speaks for himself and others shuffling around his downbeat corner of town. He approaches the same material with mordant humor and seen-it-all fatalism. He doesn't write what he hopes but what he knows in his bones, contrasting Springsteen's "We take care of our own" with his own sing-along chorus, from "New York Banker": "Good things happen to bad people."
A little uplift is not always a bad thing, of course, and Wrecking Ball is probably Springsteen's most interesting and convincing album since Tunnel of Love, never mind The Rising. In the fashion of his best work, that bombastic lead anthem turns out to be a little more complicated and conflicted than it seems. And, musically, it's assured and adventurous, if maybe a bit too polished. Wrecking Ball isn't an E Street Band album but features many of his regulars, including drummer Max Weinberg and late sax giant Clarence Clemons. Some tracks are big rock in the modern E Street vein. Others draw on his folkie legacy, either Nebraska or Seeger Sessions variety. Tom Morello adds some guitar, and some tracks even make surprisingly good use of rapped vocals. (Don't worry: not by Bruce!)
But the lack of specificity is still a drag. Springsteen's "Jack of All Trades" is a working-class Everyman instead of a real person. The days are gone when Springsteen detailed low-rent life with humor and detail — a guy wiping fried chicken grease from his fingers with a Texaco road map or lamenting his mother-in-law's big feet and loud mouth on a drive to the welfare office.
These days, Snider owns this turf. Partly, it's because he lives much closer to it. But artistry's about more than proximity. On Agnostic Hymns, Snider gives voice to an increasingly menacing panhandler on the bluesy shuffle "In Between Jobs," where he turns the closing "I'm thinking ... what's keeping me from killing this guy? ... and taking his shit" into ghostly, unnerving comedy. The guy watching his pension float away in "New York Banker" isn't an Everyman; he's a high school teacher from Arkansas who got defrauded by Goldman-Sachs' Abacus CDO. Might be Snider's buddy.
After following up the breakthrough combination of 2004's East Nashville Skyline and 2006's The Devil You Know with a more run-of-the-mill song-cycle-style good album in the form of 2009's The Excitement Plan, Snider's unexpected moment seemed to be over. But Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is a ferocious return, intensely purposeful in Snider's own sidelong way. Partly it's the songs, but it's also the sound. With a new band featuring a drummer on loan from John Prine and sharp fiddle work from Amanda Shires, there's a rattling uniformity of sound here that makes his underclass vignettes motorvate.
Grades: Snider A; Springsteen B+