Lest we forget, Todd Snider was a fairly divisive figure when he broke nationally in the early ’90s. With his indie-rock looks and sarcastic folk songs about his generation, he did strike some as a refreshing alternative to “alternative rock,” while others felt that he was awfully young and unaccomplished to be so smug. But give Snider credit: He hung around and grew into his style, such that those earlier, snarkier records now seem perfectly fine, both as documents of their time and as lights on a path to the performer Snider would become. While still only in his mid-40s, Snider sounds like a wizened coot on his recent albums, staggering cranky (but incisive) political rants with frank explorations of his personal pain and flashes of the humor and storytelling gifts that have been part of the Snider experience all along.
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is Snider’s 12th album, and it’s one of the roughest-hewn he’s ever made. With violinist/vocalist Amanda Shires offering a counterpoint in nearly every song—a conscious nod to Bob Dylan’s similarly careening Desire—Snider sings about the haves and have-nots from both perspectives, though when he adopts the persona of the former, it’s primarily to skewer their tortured self-justifications. Some of these Hymns & Fables are so simple and off-the-cuff that they barely hang together as “songs,” per se; Snider doesn’t seem overly concerned with hitting his marks, or even making sure that his lyrics fit neatly between the bars. Musically, the spirit of this album is best-captured by “Digger Dave’s Crazy Woman Blues,” a rambling, only occasionally rhyming anecdote set to a sloppy, gospel-tinged dirge.
Thematically though, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is defined by songs like “New York Banker,” a pointed Southern rocker about plundered retirement funds and how “good things happen to bad people,” and “In Between Jobs,” an amusingly chatty roadhouse blues number from the point of view of a poor guy out there hustling for dollars. The album has its brighter moments, such as the toe-tapping, Michelle Shocked-like love song “Brenda” (though even that song’s business-world and rock-star metaphors indicate that it may have multiple meanings), but it’s telling that when Snider pulls out a Jimmy Buffett cover, it’s the snarling “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown.” Folk-rock singer-songwriter records have a reputation for being soft and pristine, but Snider’s a spiritual brother to Kristofferson, Prine, Springsteen, and all those other scruffy troubadours who’ve earned the right to say “fuck you” to all pretenders