Todd Snider’s an ace word guy — his lyrics are razor sharp, unsparing, hilarious, and surprisingly tender — so this bare-bones acoustic LP is a fine idea. Punchlines fly from the get-go (there’s no Vol. 1 or 2), with humanity the usual butt of the jokes, though Trump’s a target, too. Take “Talking Reality Television Blues,” a tribute to Dylan (see “Talking John Birch Society Blues,” “Talking World War III Blues,” etc.) and Woody Guthrie before him that draws a line from Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatre through MTV, Fox News and The Apprentice, dissecting the talking blues trope along the way. Snider likes meta: see also “Working On A Song,” an extended koan that frames the life of a Nashville writer from 22-year-old newbie to a greying bard, still staring at a half-empty page. “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” conjures an encounter (supposedly true) between Loretta Lynn and the late man in black at Cash’s old mancave, which Rick Rubin helped transform into a studio during the American Recordings sessions, and where this album was cut.
The most provocative moments are topical, when Snider takes scalpels to modern cultural cancers and musical histories both. A lean riff on Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” gets repurposed on “A Timeless Response To Current Events,” with variations of the reprise “ain’t that some bullshit?” (In reference to what, you ask? Look at your Twitter feed.) In a similar spirit, if more meta still, is “The Blues On Banjo.” At first it feels uncomfortably like minstrelsy, as the title itself suggests a sly observation on American music’s African roots. Then it upshifts into hydrant-flow indictment of capitalist villainy, invoking the WWII military-industrial end-run Operation Paperclip, various 9/11 ancillaries, and archetypal NRA-owned politicians —the latter conjured with Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires in a chorus that testifies “They’re sending out their thoughts and their prayers!” (Or is it “selling out…”?) paced by a Salvation Army tambourine jingle. Border wall hysteria comes to mind as Snider observes “we mistake desperate people for the devil all the time.” And circling back to the opening, he telescopes an interrogative blues dissertation into an offhanded “zip-a-dee-doo-dah, motherfuckers.” Cultural studies majors: have at it.
But to be clear, Snider has heart, which is why his wit and erudition virtually never sounds smug, patronizing or overtly self-serving. He’s got hooks, too. See “Watering Flowers In The Rain,” a blues for a former Elvis Presley roadie, who may or may not be bullshitting, though Snider assures us he’s for real in the song’s intro. Either way, the ache and weary resignation feel 100% true. The character is a struggler — like Snider, and a lot of us, too — and his blues are our own.