After a six-year hiatus, Social Distortion are back with Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes, sounding perhaps a bit older and wiser, but mostly treading the same musical territory they always have. Mike Ness and company may have aged over the years, but aside from Ness’s baritone picking up a slightly raspy malaise, it seems impossible that more than 20 years have passed since their major-label debut.
While their signature brand of SoCal punk rock has taken on hints of alt-country and classic rock, Hard Times has still got the same raw edge and sick-boy swagger that made many of their earlier recordings uncontestable entries in the punk-rock canon. Ness’s voice settles in nicely to his new material, and while nothing here is as immediately engaging as Story Of My Life, none of these 11 tracks are throwaways or one-offs. Similarly, Ness’s guitar work here is as sharp and recognisable as it’s ever been, and often his solos have just the right mix of aggression and melody to carry a song over the edge.
The album opener, the instrumental Road Zombie, is something of a red herring, such is its over-driven sense of punk aggression. “Everyone’s got some sort of ball and chain,” sings Mike Ness on California (Hustle And Flow). “What’s life without a little pain?” This second track is an apt barometer for Social Distortion’s new direction. The tone is far more classic rock, hinting most notably at the vintage Rolling Stones tune All Down The Line (whose refrain is lifted very nearly word for word and note for note by a gospel choir, who return for Can’t Take It With You).
Gimme The Sweet And Lowdown is vintage SxDx with big palm-muted guitars; its one detractor is its obvious debt to The Drifters‘ recording of This Magic Moment with “that look in your eyes,” the melody mirroring itself in the guitar solo. Machine Gun Blues is a minor-key punk powerhouse about “junkies, winos, pimps and whores.”
Bakersfield brings a nice change of pace with its alt-country near-balladry, Ness taking a break from singing midway through and pondering whether there’s still a place for him in his lover’s “big California king-sized bed”. Far Side Of Nowhere sounds as though it could be a lost Gin Blossoms song, Ness singing about escape from the mundane minutiae of everyday life over clean and jangly guitar picking and a mid-tempo, ’90s alternative radio rhythm.
The album closer, Still Alive, seems a natural decades-later foil for Story Of My Life, Ness taking on the same persona from the other side of the what-to-do-with-my-life dilemma. “I’m still alive and I will survive,” Ness sings. “I can take what life has to give, just need a little time.” And that’s what Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes comes down to: Social Distortion still hit as hard as they ever did – barring the obvious newfound musical influences. Anyone not yet convinced by Social Distortion probably won’t find new evidence for greatness here, but for longtime fans, the six-year wait is more than worth it.