By far, the best song on Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is the album’s first track, “Road Zombie”. Not even two and a half minutes long, it is a propulsive and sexy instrumental consisting of simple but brilliant guitar progressions layered over almost metallic chugging reminiscent of the turn Pennywise made on their most recent album, Reason to Believe. It’s an opening track that completely raises the stakes for what fans and newcomers alike may have thought Social Distortion was capable of, more than thirty years in the game and still able to pull out some new tricks.
The other ten tracks that make up Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, the band’s seventh album, sound nothing like “Road Zombie”, so much so that I will find myself questioning whether or not it’s the same band that transitions from that lead-off to “California (Hustle and Flow)” when I listen to it. To the band’s credit, those other ten tracks sound a lot more like traditional Social Distortion. The only difference in the approach this time around is that they’re embracing their soul and gospel influences, genres whose connections are relevant to the band’s style as far as the blues are one of their major influences. So, they’ve added a choir and some organ, and, in an unwillingness to let these new elements go to waste, the band features that aspect of their sound more prominently, simultaneously distancing themselves from the punk rock that made them worth noting in he mid-80’s.
With this new style comes a new optimism that Hard Times conveys from the playing style to the lyrics. “Life gets hard / And then it gets good,” Mike Ness sings in a croak nearly identical to the one he had in ’83. “Just like I always knew it would.” That lyric perplexed me the first time I heard it. Can you imagine Ness telling that to the protagonist of “Story of My Life”, a rudderless youth who won’t even interview for a job from the shame he feels for his ragged jeans? It’s strange that, in Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, Social D suddenly pretend that the group’s aesthetic had some kind of silver lining, especially considering the group was at the forefront of the transition in modern punk from outright rebellion to collective lamentation.
That isn’t to say that Social Distortion aren’t allowed to be optimistic at times or play anything other than SoCal strut. If anything, like Lemmy has insisted that Motorhead is a rock and roll band, Social Distortion have never pretended not to be heavily influenced by the sounds that are so pronounced on Hard Times. The thing is, the album’s optimism is so heavy and matter-of-fact, it often comes off as stale. When you make an artificial confectionary sugar pun as one of your song titles, you’re almost asking to have your sincerity questioned, and I’m sorry to inform that this is a significant problem with Hard Times. “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown” sounds like a Green Day rip-off and “Bakersfield”, with its spoken-word breakdown, sounds exactly like a Peter Wolf B-side. However, where Wolf is able to counteract the kitsch with self-referential winks and nods, Social Distortion remain stubbornly and characteristically humorless throughout Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, allowing boredom to overtake the listener rather easily.
Hard Times does have some bright spots, as in the avant-punk swing of “Alone and Forsaken”, the gospel throttle of “Can’t Take It With You”, and “Still Alive”, the album’s final track, but it’s hard to come out of the album with a sense that the band isn’t just barely bobbing above the tide of adequacy. My suggestion is to get “Road Zombie”, because that song is quite good despite its brevity, and use your imagination to suggest how Hard Times could have sounded if Social D had followed that initial instinct.