With Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, Social Distortion has recorded one of the most satisfying albums—and surely the most commercially accessible album—of its storied career.
Continuing the path frontman Mike Ness and an ever changing lineup have trod for the last 20 years (the first 10 spent as a mainstay in the LA punk scene) Social D delves deeper into roots rock than ever before.
They’ve also expanded their sound with an abundance of catchy hooks and background vocals. That’s no reason for hardcore fans to fear, it’s still undeniably a Social D album.
Ness sounds as ardent as ever. His voice, as *ahem* specialized as it may be, has held up remarkably well despite time and the ravages of his well-documented addictions. He growls these songs about the road, love and survival with as much tenacity as he ever summoned for the “angry at the world” ragers of earlier years.
Hard Times kicks off with the rollicking instrumental “Road Zombie” before ripping into the Stonesy “California (Hustle and Flow)” bouncing along over an all-girl backing, sounding like a lost cut from Exile on Main Street.
“Diamond in the Rough” is a big heartland-rock anthem with an epic chorus that’s going to sound great with the windows down in a couple months. Other than “Highway 101,” it’s probably the catchiest song the band has ever put out. If there was a place on mainstream radio for music such as this, “Diamond” could even be a hit.
“Bakersfield,” while owing little to its namesake’s signature sound, gives a nod to the music that made it famous with a lonely tale of truckstops and broken hearts. “Stranded here in Bakersfield/You’re a million miles away” perfectly parallels the sorrow of some forgotten jukebox selection.
As strong of a return as Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is on whole, there are minor flaws in the collection. The ballad “Writing on the Wall” features tedius lyrics and a mushy, forgettable tune. It and the similarly thin and annoyingly repetitive “Can’t Take it With You” probably should have been set aside as bonus tracks. The fact that they are sequenced back to back near the end of the record throws down a speed bump into the otherwise easy flow of the album.
Thankfully, “Still Alive” ends the album on a triumphant high note. It’s a celebratory look at the struggles Ness has gone through to be not only surviving, but flourishing and still producing vital music. Sung by anyone else, it could come off as contrived, but Ness gives it unquestionable authenticity, crackling energy and even a knowing wink as he sings “I’m still alive, talking that same old jive.”
30+ years on, and Social Distortion still sounds hungry. Hard Times—only their 7th studio release—has as much urgency as many bands’ debuts.
With a comeback this inspired, there’s no doubt Ness and company will be “talking that same old jive” for a long time to come.
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