Todd Snider is on the happy back end of happy hour at a favorite East Nashville bar, talking about his new album Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. "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."
On the 10 new songs, 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 might carry the mantle of "storyteller" – it's what he titled his live record, after all – but 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 and they're not meant to incite class warfare (though he knows they might anyway). They're 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, along with guest guitarist Jason Isbell and harmony vocalist Mick Utley, 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.