Todd Snider's Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables extends the East Nashville provocateur's run of politically relevant albums that trade equally in liberal outrage and gallows humor, taking the piss out of the tired Americana scene. It's always been to Snider's credit that he doesn't use humor as a crutch, and Agnostic Hymns impresses just as much for its tunefulness and Snider and producer Eric McConnell's unconventional choices as for its arch point of view. That said, the album reaffirms that Snider's is a unique, vital voice that champions the occasional moment of levity and escapism even in the face of certain doom.
He comes out swinging here, not mincing a single word on "In the Beginning," a scathing attack on organized religion and its role in both historical and contemporary inequalities of social class. Over a laidback blues ramble, Snider delivers the most low-key of sermons, remarking, "And ain't it a son of a bitch/To think that we would still need religion/To keep the poor from killin' the rich." It's a far more cogent, pointed argument than any of the various Occupy protestors have made, and Snider elaborates on themes of injustice on "In Between Jobs" and the standout "New York Banker," with its cheerful sing-along refrain of "Good things happen to bad people."
Agnostic Hymns doesn't reserve its scorn for the 1%. Snider is just as apt to stare down personal cataclysms, and he does so to equally subversive effect. He delivers the catchy "The Very Last Time" like a sarcastic pep talk, berating himself as much as an ex for their pattern of dysfunction, while "Precious Little Miracles" is an absolutely withering takedown of the type of spoiled, entitled children who took to Twitter to whine about getting the wrong color iPhone last Christmas. Even on a more straightforward story-song, Snider toys with conventions in clever, purposeful ways: The narrator on "Too Soon to Tell" becomes increasingly unhinged and unreliable, getting repeatedly sidetracked on his way to visit a local psychic until his mantra slowly turns into a thinly veiled threat: "I wish I could show you how you hurt me in a way that wouldn't hurt you too."
Snider's confrontational tone is well matched by McConnell's deliberately messy production. The songs' arrangements are ragged and improvisational, without much in the way of overdubs or studio polish to distract from Snider's in-the-trenches messages. But for a few bars on "In Between Jobs" when the rhythm section and Snider's vocal track are noticeably out of sync, this impromptu production style works well with the material. The songs are certainly robust enough in their construction to stand on their own merits without a whole lot of dressing up: In a just world, "The Very Last Time" and the oddball "Brenda" would even score AAA airplay alongside Alabama Shakes or Drive-By Truckers. Of course, the whole point of Agnostic Hymns is that the world has a funny way of defining "just," and Snider is better than pretty much anyone at turning that precise kind of humor into a weapon.