Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes breaks a seven-year silence from L.A. punk band Social Distortion, which, at this point, means singer/guitarist Mike Ness. In 2001, guitarist Dennis Danell died of a brain aneurysm, and since then, Ness has carried on as the band’s sole founding member. Social D’s last studio album, Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll was an effective stopgap, the type of record that exists mostly to justify a past-prime band’s continued touring. My dad calls bands like this (his reference was always Skynyrd) “Lassie Bands”: Because, no matter how many Border Collies bit the dust over the course of Lassie, there was going to be a dog on camera and we were going to say this one was Lassie. I’m sure that Ness had no trouble filling the studio with musicians who would love to claim that they played on a Social Distortion record, but after listening to Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, it’s clear that the venerable punk pioneers have ceased to exist in anything but name—a name which will command more respect as soon as this particular incarnation is put out to pasture.
The evidence that Ness’s songwriting chops haven’t aged well is plain to see just from the album’s tracklist. Go ahead and count the number of songs whose titles (and therefore, main hooks) are well-worn clichés: “Diamond in the Rough,” “Writing on the Wall,” “Can’t Take It with You.” But while the inspiration may have gone from his lyrics, there’s still some fight in Ness’s voice, as his leathery belt allows even the most tiresome refrains a modicum of grit. The band’s guitars are as muscular as ever too. The problem isn’t that the trademarked Social D blend of punk, rockabilly, and blues hasn’t aged well, but that it hasn’t aged at all: The band’s sound hasn’t evolved much since 1990’s Social Distortion, and Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes doesn’t alter that holding pattern.
If only Ness was as concerned with keeping his own sound fresh as with giving patronizingly modern “updates” on the work of his forbears. On “California (Hustle and Flow),” he takes obvious liberties with the Rolling Stones’ “All Down the Line,” from Keith Richards’s blues leads, to the gospel backup vocals, to the hook, which has him singing, “Take me down/Take me on down the line.” Caught red-handed? Probably not. It’s no secret that Ness is a diehard Stones fan, given that Social D’s Prison Bound contained a cover of “Back Street Girl,” and Ness once joined Beck and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for a live version of the Exile on Main St. country ballad “Sweet Virginia.” Not enough fan service? This album also contains a gratuitous hard-rock makeover of Hank Williams’s “Alone and Forsaken,” on which the band can only be accused of ripping off their own catalogue. By replacing the sparely arranged original with chugging punk power chords and jangly Heartbreakers riffs, the song follows exactly the same formula as their famous “Ring of Fire” rendition, and, for that matter, the aforementioned Stones cover.
Homage is not without merits. Hell, shameless rip-offs can be defended when executed with enough style. However you peg Social D’s fumbling about the roots-rock canon, it remains disheartening because the version of this band that made hardcore history between 1983 and 1993 wasn’t just playing to pay tribute; they were playing for their own place among the all-time greats, and there are at least three albums that suggest they deserve that place. But Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is throwback after throwback, the album where the roots-rock traditionalism that has always been the counterweight to Ness’s punk modernism finally comes crushing down on the whole Social Distortion enterprise. The album is capped off with a song called “Still Alive,” the title of which seems to pretty well encapsulate Ness’s aspirations for this band.