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Social Distortion “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes” Review

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: , .

The creation of Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes has been a long and trying process for Social Distortion fans; the album continually being teased since work first began on it in 2006. Even this past year, when things seemed all but locked down, Hard Times was constantly pushed back until finally being given a 2011 release date. Additionally, while not quite reaching Spinal Tap-levels of drummer turnover, the band went from Atom Willard, who left to pursue Angels & Airwaves, to Scott Reeder to current drummer David Hidalgo Jr.; not before actually recording the album with session veteran Josh Freese, however. Add to the mess a label shift—the group finding a new home in the historically punk-friendly Epitaph family—and the details slowly begin to account for the delay. But at the heart of things, as has always been the case with Social D, was Mike Ness and his determination to release the best album that he and his band are capable of. So after five years of waiting, what has Social Distortion actually come up with? Nothing less than an album that is reminiscent of days gone by while still serving as a telling indicator of how distant a storyteller Ness is in 2011 compared to the band’s glory years.

Offering a surprise straight out of the gate, “Road Zombie” opens the album as a crushing instrumental to kick things off. And with its hard driving momentum the track sets precedent for a sharper edge that resonates throughout Hard Times. “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown,” a song about finding one’s own path through life, sounds a bit more like Social D’s old school jams, while the LP’s lead single “Machine Gun Blues,” also hits the mark—its guitar piece serving as an extension of “Mommy’s Little Monster” a few decades after the fact. By the time the album really hits its stride however, the group’s dark rendition of Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken” is there to drive home the spike in the heart of any remaining doubters questioning Social Distortion’s ability to retain an edginess amidst a sea of slick production. This isn’t to say that the album is a complete musical return to the band of years gone by though, as a number of tracks do seem to further signify the taming of the punks.

“Diamond in the Rough” isn’t particularly outstanding musically, but the track does offer quite a bit of insight into the current state of where Ness is at as a songwriter; the vocalist lyrically portraying a man searching for inner peace while rehashing past battles. Album closer “Still Alive” acts similarly in that it isn’t a driving musical force, but it still lends a glimpse into the heart of the man behind the music. “I can take what life’s got to give/Just need a little time,” bellows Ness before a sentimental piano piece plays the album out. But the touching keys that put the album to rest aren’t alone in showing a now-emotionally available group: the slow moving sounds of “Bakersfield” echo a tender sentiment of wanting to go back to the way things once were with the one you love, and “Far Side of Nowhere”—while maintaining a rhythmically upbeat bounce—focuses on living in the moment and taking each day as it comes.

“Writing on the Wall” offers a glance toward a similarly unexpected tender side of the band as the slow burner goes deep in touching on an unexpected explanation of regret, but the truly surprisingly moments are spread out on the album: split between “California (Hustle and Flow)” and “Can’t Take it With You.” The former accompanies a George Thorogood-sounding classic rock tinge with unexpected sounds of a soulful group of backup singers. “Livin’ in a Hollywood movie dream/And I’m reachin’ for the stars/Life gets hard then it gets good/Like I always knew it would,” reveals Ness before the song cuts into a hard hitting outro. Likewise “Can’t Take it With You” utilizes the same classic backing harmonies while echoing a similar feeling of living for today as “Far Side of Nowhere,” “Work all your life; you’ve become a slave/There ain’t no spendin’ when you’re in the grave.”

Quantity has never been the group’s forte—Hard Times being just the seventh studio album since the group’s 1983 debut—so rather than focus on the question of whether or not it is worth the wait, fans should take a moment to consider whether or not the album successfully shows a band getting better at what it does. In a time when Social Distortion could sit back and relish a patriarchal role amongst the KROQs of the world, the group has dropped an album that further reveals a willingness to creep slowly away from its safe zone. Hard Times shows an interest in working with new vocal harmonies and slower tempos while not forsaking such time-tested hallmarks as genuine storytelling and identifiable lyrics. So was it worth the wait? Who’s to say… But is Hard Times a successful outing for the band of veterans? Undeniably so.