After all of this time, there still appears to be a rather large gulf between the band that Social Distortion wants to be and the band that they want be seen as. Now, this isn’t anything necessarily new, and nothing that is necessarily damning in and of itself either. The band’s 2004 LP Sex, Love, and Rock and Roll , for example, suffered from similar issues, but made up for its inconsistencies with a surprising vibrancy. Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes (the band’s first album in almost seven years, and their seventh LP overall) lacks that vitality, and comes across as muddled and a bit boring.
Even back in those heady times when Social Distortion first appeared on the scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, they stood as something of a parallel to their contemporary hardcore counterparts. They were infinitely more romantic than political, and far more melodic than menacing. Musically, they were more closely influenced by The Stones than, say, The Germs.
Using these attributes, frontman Mike Ness spent most of the ’80s carving out a niche for himself as the patron saint of the outsiders. In a stylistic sense, though, he never let go of the ever fleeting punk credibility that he gained, and made sure to cater to that aspect as often as possible. Sonically, Social Distortion were always going for a big, soulful sound. In those early days, however, it was mostly delivered through a filter of DIY aesthetics, alienation, and youth-culture trappings. It wasn’t until later on in their career that they tried to blend in that bigger, more straight-laced rock sound to varying degrees of success.
Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes finds the band struggling with the same identity crisis as they did throughout most of the ’90s, and up until now. Trying to marry that sought-after, punk-like rebellion with the rhythm and blues aspirations of a frontman who has never been fully aware of where his strengths end and his indulgences begin has been proven a difficult task in the past. This latest iteration of it is, perhaps, its most glaring appearance yet.
Hard Times… unfortunately spends most of its running time inadvertently showcasing the delicate difference between stylistic variation and tonal inconsistency. It does many things acceptably, but nothing exceedingly well. The labored nature in which the tracks are delivered exposes the albums flatness and lazy production, which mistakes inundation for inspiration.
The transitions from those big rock stabs at Americana like “California (Hustle and Flow),” to the more bluesy ballads (“Diamond in the Rough“), to the soulful punk hybrids (“Alone and Forsaken“), to the slightly grittier, old school snarl fests (“Machine Gun Blues”) are either abrupt or non-existent. As such, instead of the desired atmosphere of sonic diversity, there’s just this heaping helping of disparate sounds that are as unexciting as they are uninspired. There’s no thread to tie them together save maybe for Mike Ness and the apparent vision he has of himself as an American folk hero.
From year to hiatus-filled year, as the gap between albums seem to grow larger and larger, Social Distortion have only seen their status grow more legendary, and their very presence all the more special. Musically, though, there has been very little built upon since the start. It’s not so much that they blend styles (which would be more than fine); they’ve simply never been able to fully commit to evolving. Despite all of the posturing, and their ability to adeptly play to their fan base, Social Distortion still kind of come off as a bit uncomfortable in their own skin. Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes exposes this truth even further. Ball and chain, indeed.