The smartest thing Social Distortion ever did was embrace country music. In the mid 1980s, following a sizable hardcore hit with “Mommy’s Little Monster,” the band melded their manic punk with messy country and came up with a sound that wasn’t exactly unprecedented (X, for instance, got there first) but was distinctive and rambunctious. And durable: A quarter-century and a handful of albums later, the Los Angeles outfit has barely changed its sound at all, which sounds all the more relevant in the wake of newer acts like the Hold Steady, the Gaslight Anthem and Lucero.
To say that Social Distortion’s seventh album sounds a lot like their sixth—or even their fifth and fourth, for that matter—is neither a criticism nor a surprise. In fact, much like its recent predecessors, the mere existence of Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes seems like a minor miracle—not necessarily a comeback, but the kind of record only a lifer like Mike Ness could make. Part of that, of course, has to do with the band’s troubled history, which includes the frontman’s drug problems in the ‘80s and the tragic death of guitarist Dennis Danell in 2000. To their credit, Social Distortion have never shied away from their history. While they don’t sound quite as punk-rowdy as they did in their heyday, and while covering Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken” in 2011 isn’t as revolutionary as covering Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” in 1990, they can still look back on rough times with some distance and even some wisdom.
Hard Times wears that wisdom almost too well. With explicit nods to the Stones, Hank, and Bakersfield, the album makes clear that Social Distortion’s true subject is now rock ‘n’ roll itself, which serves as Ness’ inspiration as well as his salvation. While that makes for a few too many ballads like “Writing on the Wall,” “Give Me the Sweet and Lowdown” and “Alone and Forsaken” have the live-or-die stakes of the best punk, albeit self-consciously, while “Diamond in the Rough” and “Still Alive” imagine the band’s troubles as simply parts of the larger rock-’n’-roll continuum.
On some level, Social Distortion know they’re too old to play punk anymore, but even when the Boardwalk Empire lyrics of first single “Machine Gun Blues” come across as hokey, the bullet-speed tempo more than persuades you of the tommygun-wielding narrator’s badassery. It helps that Ness still has a way with a strong hook and a compact guitar riff that can straddle several genres at once. “Far Side of Nowhere” may be their sunniest song to date; in another life, it might have been a surf-pop hit, like the Beach Boys as second- or third-generation punks. Most importantly, Ness still buys wholeheartedly into the romance of both rock and country, writing about being brokenhearted and down on his luck as if they were enlightened states. So, even though his voice has weakened a bit with age, he can still address the spoken-word bridge of “Bakersfield” to all of California, turning what could be a flat moment into something epic.
Ultimately, Hard Times may not have the same sense of discovery—for the musicians themselves or for long-time fans—as Social Distortion’s earlier albums, but unlike so many punks, Ness and co. have found a way to weather the hard times and age gracefully, which is no easy feat.