Now that Social Distortion has settled on a steady schedule of releasing an album every seven or eight years, it’s easier to chart how much Mike Ness progresses as a songwriter from record to record. Or not. Progress isn’t really Ness’ department; Since performing a shit-kicking overhaul of punk starting with 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster, Social D has tapped ever deeper into its Americana roots while giving Ness plenty of grease for his gruff, rough-and-tumble confessionals. Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes, the band’s seventh album, doesn’t poison that well—but it comes close to exhausting it.
The pseudo-surf instrumental “Road Zombie” opens Hard Times, and the absence of Ness’ voice is a mistake; his pained, impassioned howl has always been able to sell drunken heartache to those who probably don’t need a second helping. But even when the vocals kick in, the tunes don’t always stick. Tracks like “Writing On The Wall” and “Can’t Take It With You” creep along on cruise control, leaving barely a whiff of exhaust. When Ness guns it, though, he soars: “California (Hustle And Flow)” is a soulful, smoldering Stones tribute that bittersweetly namedrops Social D’s own classic “Ball And Chain,” while “Bakersfield” echoes the ramped-up twang of the titular town as well the roadside loneliness of CCR’s “Lodi.” And when “Still Alive” closes Hard Times with a triumphant blast of knuckle-bruising hooks and punkabilly sneer, it’s almost enough to blow away the disc’s stagnant patches.