Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (Music Review)

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes cover

Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

Though Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is Social Distortion’s first album in seven years, Mike Ness seems to be one of the few punk rock frontmen capable of aging gracefully. He was pulling in country influences years before “punk gone country” became a trend, and always focused on slightly slower songs about life. He was never afraid to admit that life changes sometimes, and by now his fanbase has had time to come around to his point of view on songs like “I Was Wrong”. It’s time for Ness and his band to bring that same honesty to middle-aged life.

For the most part, he succeeds. Ness may not betray his age (he was 49 at the time of this release), but this obviously isn’t the work of wild kids either. Hard Times is a collection of confident songs with nothing to prove. They may be the best-produced of any Social Distortion songs yet, and Ness’ gravelly voice is one that he wears more naturally with every passing year. This may be white-trash blues rock, but it’s smooth and soulful under the rough edges.

Recent trends haven’t made the band veer towards country, but the influence is still there. Their rendition of “Alone and Forsaken” won’t attract as much attention as their old “Ring of Fire” cover did, but in reality, Hank Williams’ work was much more in need of a modern update than Johnny Cash’s. Intense and respectful, “Alone and Forsaken” could pass as a modern song if not for a few archaic turns of phrase. Social Distortion does Williams a great service by demonstrating the excellent songwriting at the core of his songs. Country lyrics seem to creep into many of the original tracks, most notably on the album standout “Can’t Take It With You”. Announcing that he has “never seen a hearse with a luggage rack”, Ness warns the listeners away from material greed with lines that would do a wholesome country singer proud.

The band experiments with a few new things, some better than others. The gospel-tinged backup singers that appear in a few songs are a great addition, but the slow, bluesy ballad “Bakersfield” doesn’t play to the strengths of Ness’ voice or the band’s instrumentation. Similarly, the 1930’s gangsters of “Machine Gun Blues” don’t seem to draw from the more personal sources of inspiration that usually drive Ness’ songs. It’s obvious that the band does best when staying close to their comfort level. That’s fine for now, since it means even the filler songs are part of the album’s core appeal, but it may be a problem in the future. Perhaps that explains the seven-year wait for this one.

Regardless of that, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is a consistently solid album that every fan of Social Distortion should own. Usually, I consider claims that a rock singer has “matured” to be more of an insult than a compliment. In Ness’ case, though, maturation is not a gimmick or betrayal of his past. It’s simply part of the process that he has chronicled since the beginning.

Grade: B


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