When Todd Snider’s latest album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, comes out tomorrow, it probably won’t get the kind of attention afforded to this week’s round of trendy indie-rock bands and rappers. As a self-described hippie folksinger firmly ensconced in his mid-40s, Snider doesn’t get the presumption of artistic relevancy that goes to someone like, say, the Canadian electro-pop moppet Grimes. He is not perceived to be novel or innovative. (He doesn't have a "Tumblr aesthetic.") Snider writes guitar-based songs that draw on blues, folk, country, and classic-rock traditions (he’s particularly obsessed with The Rolling Stones), and specializes in character-based story-songs that follow the example of John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Kris Kristofferson. This makes him another face in a crowd of artists who, for whatever reason, are not considered important or vital to understanding contemporary culture.
And yet Snider’s last several albums—going back to 2004’s fantastic East Nashville Skyline and continuing on up through the snarling, sloppy Agnostic Hymns—are unique in at least one important, vital way: They include funny, sorrowful, wonderfully vivid depictions of people living at or below the poverty line. That’s right: Todd Snider actually acknowledges the existence of poor Americans in his songs, an increasingly rare feat in pop culture these days.
Not that Snider is the only person doing it; you still occasionally hear about poor people in country music (Ronnie Dunn’s stark 2011 single “Cost Of Livin’” comes to mind), and rap has rising stars like Kendrick Lamar and G-Side talking about worlds far removed from the millionaire fantasias of Kanye West, Drake, and Rick Ross. But going back nearly a decade, Snider has written better, deeper, and more often about everyday folks living paycheck-to-paycheck (or petty crime to petty crime) than any songwriter I can think of.
In “Tillamook County Jail” from Skyline, a guy ends up in lock-up after getting into a fight at his dead-end job. In “Looking For A Job” from 2006’s The Devil You Know, an ex-con putting up drywall in a rich yuppie’s house revels in the freedom that comes from having literally nothing to lose. In “Unorganized Crime,” from 2009’s The Excitement Plan, a low-level hood turns himself in to police for the murder of a local kingpin just for the status, though he may not have actually committed the crime.
Snider doesn’t write platitudes; he tells stories about down-and-out characters who have poverty embedded in their lives. Being broke is a way of life in Snider’s songs, and a backdrop for stories about bad decisions that never go unpunished. Unlike in a lot of hip-hop songs, Snider’s characters don’t bother trying to transcend their circumstances; they’re just trying to figure out a way to survive them. Taken together, the miscreants and losers scraping by in Snider’s universe tell one long story about the American underclass. It’s like a folk-singer redux of The Wire, only with characters too hapless to pull off any kind of criminal conspiracy.
Certainly the pivotal line from Agnostic Hymns—“It ain’t the despair that gets you, it’s the hope,” from the song “Big Finish”—sounds like something The Wire creator David Simon could’ve written. The anger Snider mostly keeps at bay on his earlier albums curdles here, a feeling reflected in the torn-and-frayed sound of the music, which Snider recorded at home with friends in East Nashville, usually off-the-cuff and before his band learned the songs. After working with Don Was and sounding relatively polished and professional on The Excitement Plan, Snider wanted to get back to the raw, late-night sound of Skyline and Devil. The result is music that sounds like it could’ve been performed by the people Snider writes about.
When I caught up with Snider via telephone recently to talk about the new record, he was standing outside of an all-night poker game in East Nashville. “I left last night,” he told me. “I didn’t do too good, and when I drove by this morning and saw everybody was still here, I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll dive back in so I can get my money back.’” It was a scenario not unlike something that would take place in a Todd Snider song, though he assured me that the other players were good guys who would not break his legs if he lost.
As much as Baltimore is the central character of The Wire, East Nashville looms large in Snider’s songs. He describes it as “the hippie side of town, the rock side of town, the working-class side of town. There’s not a certain outfit that you’re going to see in my neighborhood.” Many of Snider’s songs are directly inspired by his experiences in East Nashville. One of his best, “The Devil You Know,” is an exaggerated version of a true story about his house getting burglarized. In the song, Snider realizes he has more in common with the criminal than the cops about to bust down his door, so he lets the guy steal his car and make his getaway.
“I tend to write about my neighbors, and I live in East Nashville, where some people are really doing really well, but some people are really struggling,” he said. “Shit, in my neighborhood, just a few months ago, some guy came into a restaurant and robbed them all individually like a movie. I kind of live around it.”
As anyone who’s seen Snider live will tell you, he’s a born storyteller with a knack for turning a kernel of truth into an epic shaggy-dog tale. (As he told me when I interviewed him in 2009, "Sometimes I’ll put a lie in there strictly for philosophical reasons, and sometimes to make the story shorter.") But if he had his way, he wouldn’t be writing about his neighbors at all. He’d be writing love songs. He’s just not very good at writing like that. “I always thought music’s job was to help people fuck on Saturday, in conjunction with alcohol,” he said. “My favorite kinds of songs are like Ryan Adams, when they just sound so great and I know they’re about some girl and she’s so happy to be hearing this about herself. And it’s this poetry you can’t totally decipher, but it’s not undecipherable—I really like that kind of music.”
Even if Snider quickly shrugs off any suggestion that he’s doing something special in his own songs, he does recognize that talking and writing about class has a special kind of power when it’s done well. “I like anti-establishment for the sake of anti-establishment, just for fun,” he said. “It’s a folksinger’s job to be honest about stuff and then not be a dick when people boo.”
Artists aren’t obligated to address economic hardships, or any social issue, for that matter. This is something Snider stressed repeatedly during our conversation: Nobody likes preachiness. Songwriters who set out to write something “important” almost never succeed. But Snider’s talent for infusing his songs with details borrowed from the lives of millions of otherwise-ignored people in a lively, conversational, non-preachy way makes his music—with all its fury, humor, silliness, drunkenness, and unlikely insights—so 2012 that it hurts.