TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Todd Snider is a singer-songwriter who works on the folk, blues and country tradition with a sharp sense of humor - as you might guess from the title of his new album, "Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables." Rock critic Ken Tucker says that even his most pessimistic songs have a sense of fun and energy that gives them an exhilarating spin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VERY LAST TIME")
TODD SNIDER: (Singing) This is the last time, the very last time, you're going to break my heart. Unlike the last time, this is the last time you're going to break my heart.
KEN TUCKER: Todd Snider is, on one level, your average guitar-strumming singer-songwriter with varying amounts of musical accompaniment, for songs he sings with a mush-mouthed intimacy. But now in his mid-40s and impressively prolific, Snider is also an exceptional singer-songwriter, able to set up scenes with quick, precise details. Listen to the way he imagines the birth of greed and envy on "In the Beginning."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE BEGINNING")
SNIDER: (Singing) In the beginning, man wondered to himself why, oh, why are we here? And yet with each asking of this question, the answer would become even less clear. Overwhelmed by fear, distraction took its place. And so it was in the world's first shelter that we began the human race. The human race, to fill up more and more empty space; oh, how we loved the human race.
(Singing) Till one day this one guy said to this other guy - he said hey, have you seen that guy over there? He's got more than everybody else has got. To me, that don't seem fair. Well, the second guy agreed...
TUCKER: It's not so much that Todd Snider takes a dim view of humanity, as much as he knows people are weak and vulnerable to manipulation. And you bet he includes himself in that number. Whether the hurt is put on you by the government or by a lover, Snider feels your pain.
One of the best songs here, "Too Soon to Tell," is about feeling brokenhearted and betrayed, tempered with his brand of mercy - summed up in the refrain: I wish I could show how you hurt me in a way that wouldn't hurt you, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO SOON TO TELL")
SNIDER: (Singing) The low, gray clouds rolling over my head. I'm walking up a hill to get my fortune read. I can still take rejection but it does get harder to do. I wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldn't hurt you, too. Tennis shoes hanging from a telephone wire. I've got a little money; I could get a little higher. I was all right a while, but you know how it goes.
(Singing) Everything in moderation, including moderation, I suppose. I never did like...
TUCKER: When it comes to addressing institutional agony, Snider is right on the money, so to speak, with his song "New York Banker," in which he assumes the voice of a schoolteacher whose savings have been wiped out by a cynical bond salesman. Guess who suffers in the end? As he puts it, good things happen to bad people.
"New York Banker" may have a title that could derive from the Woody Guthrie songbook, but it's a Todd Snider special, powered by some whiplash drumming and a melodic hook that matches the wickedly pointed lyric.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK BANKER")
SNIDER: (Singing) All these years, Arkansas, teaching at the high school. How was I to know by retirement day, I'd learn a lesson so cruel? I came to the day I had waited on just to find out all the money in our pension was gone. We invested in something called the Abacus bond sold to us by a New York banker.
SNIDER: (Singing) Good things happen to bad people, bad people, bad people. Good things happen to bad people, bad people, bad people. Oh...
TUCKER: The agnostic hymns of Snider's album title include a middle-aged man's funny complaints about the random cruelty and stupidity of young people, and a subversion of blues cliches that finds the singer blaming himself - not a woman - for his troubles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG FINISH")
SNIDER: (Singing) Take your time. Tell me slow. Should I stay? When we both know you thought you knew what I was just about to say. But you didn't know, and you always think you do. I'll tell you, I've been looking back over my shoulder. It's not you that I've got to blame. If I could do all this all over, I wouldn't do nothing the same. Seen my...
TUCKER: Throughout this album, Todd Snider sings in a rushed moan that proves surprisingly agile at conveying his layered ambiguities. If one line could sum up this album, it's, quote: "It ain't the despair that gets you, it's the hope." But fortunately, neither I - nor you - can sum up an album that keeps surprising you with its fulsome hopelessness, its witty manner of parsing the various ways we exploit each other.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the new album from Todd Snider, "Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables." Snider has another new album that will be released tomorrow, called "Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker."
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