Todd Snider is, on one level, your average guitar-strumming singer-songwriter with varying amounts of musical accompaniment for songs he sings with mush-mouthed intimacy. But Snider, now in his mid-40s and impressively prolific, is also an exceptional singer-songwriter, able to set up scenes with quick, precise details.
It's not so much that Snider takes a dim view of humanity as it is that he knows people are weak and vulnerable to manipulation, and you bet he includes himself among their ranks. Whether the hurt is put on you by the government or by a lover, Snider feels your pain. One of the best songs on Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, "Too Soon to Tell," is about feeling heartbroken 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."
When it comes to addressing institutional agony, Snider is right on the money, so to speak, in "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 whiplash drumming and a melodic hook that matches the wickedly pointed lyric.
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 clichés that finds the singer blaming himself, not a woman, for his troubles, in "The Big Finish."
Throughout Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, Todd Snider sings in a rushed moan that proves surprisingly agile at conveying his layered ambiguities. If one line could sum up the album, it's "It ain't the despair that gets you / It's the hope." But fortunately, neither you nor I can sum up an album that keeps surprising with its fulsome hopelessness and its witty way of parsing the various ways we exploit each other.
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