As a songwriter, Todd Snider has always shown both an acerbic wit and a brutal emotional candor. On his new disc, The Devil You Know, it's the wit that's mostly on display -- and it's decidedly brutal, if sometimes subtly so.
Given the times, and the current political climate, the new album will likely be most celebrated for "A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers" -- a tongue-in-cheek, once-removed tall tale about an unctuous, smarmy "rich kid" frat boy who would later go on to become Governor of Texas, and then, an unpopular, war-waging president. You know the one we mean.
And that's as it should be, because, says Snider, "at first, this whole record was a reaction to living in a country at war. But I didn't want to do the typical war stuff we're hearing now. I didn't want to say 'Bush' or 'Iraq,' any of it. No 'Give Peace a Chance,' because as much as I love John Lennon's reaction to early Bob Dylan, my favorite reaction to early Bob Dylan was Bob Dylan."
So with that in mind, Snider instead sought out the small stories, stories of people living on the fringes -- or as he puts it, "I pulled the camera back and found poverty under certainty of religion."
In the process, Snider, who comes to the Visulite Theater on Aug. 30, still succeeds in making a record that sends up the current political and social climate -- by looking at the social and cultural implications of having a president who proclaims that God intended him to lead the free world.
The Devil You Know is full of the stinging broadsides we've come to expect from Snider over the 12 years that he's been carving out a rep as one of the smartest songwriters on the alt-country scene (or maybe any scene). Indeed, after eight albums, Snider has reached the point in his career where his talents are now being lauded by his heroes -- world-beating writers like John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver.
But back to those two fraternity brothers. In the tune, Snider writes from the point of view of the fictional running buddy of this Texas frat boy who would one day be Prez. He doesn't tip his hand right away, though. Over a sing-songy melody that sounds borrowed from Prine -- and with a sly Southerner, talk-singing vocal performance that evokes Robert Earl Keen, Jr. -- Snider slowly unwinds the tale:
"Remember that kid we beat up back in college? / Out in front of the frat? / And that hippie ran home crying to his parents? / I can't believe you got us out of that / God we were drunk / We drove around with the keg in the trunk / And when the cop pulled us over, you got us out of that, too / You got away with it / You got away / You get away with / The things that you say."
It's not until a subsequent verse that Snider delivers the punch line: "You never did tell me what happened with you and your brother down there in Florida / Folks around here were afraid you might lose / But I told 'em not to worry, I knew you'd be fine / Look at you now, you old son of a bitch / You got the run of the place ..."
The Devil You Know also reminds us that Snider knows how to rock the joint, and he makes it a point to throw down right off the bat. The lead-off track, "If Tomorrow Never Comes" opens with a languorous piano figure that seems to forewarn of something brooding or portentous -- until the song quickly cocks the lever and kicks into one of the best, and most rabid, Jerry Lee Lewis homages you'll ever hear, complete with pounding barrelhouse piano and Snider's wonderfully slapdash vocal performance. It's an exhilarating performance, as Snider is barely able to keep up with the breathless rush of the band, which is cooking on all cylinders. Then, as the band sprints to the finish, they abruptly stop short, as Snider hilariously mutters: "If worms had daggers / Birds wouldn't f--- with them."
Snider has always been a certifiable Dylan freak -- he drolly titled his last album East Nashville Skyline (he actually lives in East Nashville) -- and on his new disc his fascination with Dylan lore surfaces on "Thin Wild Mercury." (The title is knowing send-up of Dylan's description of his own mid-'60s sound as "thin, wild mercury music.")
Leave it to Snider to craft a song (along with co-writer Peter Cooper, a pop music critic for the Tennessean) out of one of the funniest and/or most telling tales of the Dylan Legend -- the time that Dylan threw fellow folkie Phil Ochs out of his car after Ochs critiqued one of Dylan's songs. While his band lays down a foursquare roots-rock groove, Snider deadpans: "Poor Phil Ochs, sad and low / Hands in his pockets, wonderin' where to go / Watching those tail lights leave him behind / Thrown from the limousine for speaking his mind ... Judas went electric and he never looked back ..."
"We saw the whole thing as a metaphor for the pot holes in life from both guys' perspectives," says Snider. "We worked on [it] for a while and declared ourselves finished when we decided to make this line -- "If he never thought better he thought too late" -- applicable to whichever of the two men you choose."
The album isn't all trenchant satire and deft wit, however. As always, Snider makes room for some ruminations on the poignancy of lives-gone-wrong. In "Just Like Old Times," a hooker and a hustler close off the hard world outside by hunkering down in a motel room, their only solace being their dope, their shared memories of past times and their 'us-against-the-world' fortification. And "Unbreakable" sadly sketches a woman who's opted to close off her heart as a way of never being hurt again.
Snider was once a legendary wildman and itinerant, but in recent years has been tamed by sobriety, marriage and a comfy house in East Nashville. That doesn't mean his wandering soul has been laid to rest, however.
"I'm gypsy first, and a songwriter second," muses Snider. "And I always will be."