Two years ago, Todd Snider returned to his troubadour ways on Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3. It was his first album full of the type of sardonic Nashville hippie storytelling Snider’s best known for (and has long mastered) since 2012’s post-Occupy opus Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. After a year of isolation, devastation and loss of close friends, Snider is back with First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, an outgrowth of the loose livestream performances he’s has been offering in quarantine over the past year.
Snider spends much of his latest working in a blues dirge palette that feels like a trimmed down iteration of his Agnostic Hymns sound. The record is freewheeling, even by Snider’s standards, with nary a traditional chorus, and a mix of eulogies, sociopolitical observations and typical Snider yarns on human-caused destruction (“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”), shrugging existentialism (“The Get Together”) and afterlife skepticism (“Agnostic Preacher’s Lament”).
In the past two years alone, Snider has mourned a slew of musical heroes and friends, from Jeff Austin and Neal Casal to Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine. On “Handsome John,” Snider pays tribute to the latter, his voice bleary and muddled in the mix, as if he’s nervous and shy about delivering his own humble eulogy. And indeed, Snider is best on his latest when he’s working through tremendous loss. “I don’t know from good advice,” he sings on the very next track, a tribute to Austin. “So I’ll just see you.”
Much of Snider’s latest is engaged in a striking conversation with the rest of the Nashville singer-songwriter’s catalog (the narrator of the spoken-word “Agnostic Preacher’s Lament” just might be friends with the narrator of Snider’s 2006 classic “Happy New Year). Occasionally however, like on the cursory grunge-blues of “Stoner Yodel Number One” it can feel like Snider’s turned on his folkie cruise control.
But for the most part, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder is a raw portrait of a world-class songwriter processing calamity and chaos in real time.