Seven long years have passed since Social Distortion’s last album, 2004’s rugged but unremarkable Sex, Love and Rock’n’Roll. Even the eye-rolling title of that one would suggest that these pioneering hardcore-turned-hillbilly punk rock legends were on their creative last-legs. Worse still, since then both the Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady have appropriated Social D’s admittedly tasty recipe – equal fistfuls of gutters and stars, with a twist of Cash and a sprinkle of Springsteen – and done wonders with it. So this album, the band’s seventh in 28 years, seems especially important.
Is there even a place for a middle-aged hard-luck, guts-first troubadour like SxDx’s Mike Ness in the tangle of wires we call this post- everything, genre-mincing digital age? Yeah, turns out.
In fact, Hard Times is probably the best album they’ve done since 1992’s seminal Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell. Not that the template has changed much – love, death, redemption, whiskey, jail and broken teeth all make an appearance, as they always have in Mike Ness’s songs – but there’s a warm golden glaze covering Hard Times’s punchy 70s punk aesthetic that turns otherwise by-the-numbers Social D tracks into the kind of songs you want to tattoo into your neck before selling the house for a Harley and vanishing into the desert.
Clearly, Ness isn’t being autobiographical in a song like the 1940s crimewave fantasy Machine Gun Blues, but he’s gotten so good at weaving these sorts of glorious desperado tales that you can practically see him going down in a blaze of bullet-riddled glory as he sings it. And even if he is making all this shit up, when it comes to the important stuff, he means it. For all his tough-guy platitudes, there isn’t a punk rocker alive who can do melancholy like Ness, and the gorgeous heartbreak ballad Writing On The Wall is evidence of that.
But perhaps the album’s biggest surprise – and its crown jewel – is the audacious Vegas schmaltz of Can’t Take It With You, an exuberant old-Hollywood rave-up, complete with gospel back-up singers. It’s like Ness tried on Elvis’s rhinestone jumpsuit, and the thing fitted perfectly.
This album may have taken seven years to mature, but it was clearly worth the wait. You can almost hear the snarling punk age into a knowing, mellow gentleman as the record rolls on.
Mike Ness may have started like Johnny Rotten, but he’ll end like Glen Campbell, I’m sure of it.