Social Distortion have made a career out of testing their fans’ patience. Putting out a scant seven albums over the course of their 33 years of existence, the band has always made more of an impact on stage than they ever have in the studio, simply because seeing them live was the only real way to stay in contact with the band while you resolutely waited for their next record to finally come out. But between frontman Mike Ness’ recurring drug and legal problems, and a constantly evolving line-up, the only consistent thing that remains about the group are their often incendiary live shows.
Their recorded output has been unsteady and rather unpredictable right from the start, bouncing casually from SoCal surf-punk, to a bluesy brand of rockabilly, to a streetwise country sound, all while vividly documenting Ness’ frequent struggles and setbacks. After another extended period of inactivity, Social D have returned with Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes, their first studio album in nearly seven years, and their first produced solely by Ness. And while there are occasional moments that recapture the intensity and attitude of their distinguished past, most of these new songs sound alarmingly tired and derivative, and lack any of the feisty spirit that permeated their early work.
The album begins with a rather bland, conventional instrumental, ‘Road Zombie,’ that only serves to keep fans waiting even longer to hear Ness’ gritty, weathered vocals. But when the payoff finally comes, on ‘California (Hustle and Flow),’ we get a rehashed version of the Stones filtered through either Oasis or the Black Crowes – take your pick. It’s a pleasant enough song, a bit catchy even, but you don’t listen to Social Distortion because they’re pleasant now, do you? It just sounds like the edge and potency of these songs have been diluted considerably, resulting in numbers that, while clearly not offensive sounding, aren’t really all that memorable either. The tracks just come off as standard rock-by-numbers affairs that Ness could seemingly write in his sleep, with very little sense of the risk or passion that has been the lifeblood of his best songs over the years.
The songs are filled with tired, overused clichés (which Ness has been guilty of for years now), both in the lyrics and the titles, and while that isn’t enough to ruin the tracks alone, when combined with the routine chord changes and lifeless rhythms featured throughout the album, you are left to wonder how much life is truly left in the seemingly unstoppable Social D machine. Even their cover of the Hank Williams classic ‘Alone And Forsaken’ finds the band repeating themselves a bit, sticking to the strained, aggressive template that worked so well on their cover of ‘Ring Of Fire.’
And while working Nursery Rhymes into the title of your album might be a subtle admission that your songs lack a bit of depth, that still isn’t an excuse for the dreary balladry of ‘Bakersfield’ and ‘Writing On The Wall,’ which both plod on monotonously for far too long. And when Ness again echoes the loose spirit of Exile On Main Street on ‘Can’t Take It With You,’ it’s clear that he and the rest of the band are clean out of original ideas. So, as the album ends with the defiantly vital but entirely insipid ‘Still Alive,’ you are indeed thankful that Ness has seen his way safely through his arduous, checkered past, but you just wonder what is the point of him still singing about it.