Todd Snider is a born subversive. At his best, he’s a droll, conversational lyricist with a keen eye for oddball details, and he can switch between ridiculous and affecting with a subtle edge so well honed it leaves you in tatters before you know what happened. He demonstrates on “Working on a Song,” the opening number on his latest album. As he picks out a melody on acoustic guitar and describes how long he’s been chasing an elusive idea, Snider realizes he’s crossed a line: “It’s turned into a song about a song you’re working on,” he sings. “I mean, it’s gone, man, come on. Let it go.”
It’s a strong start to Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, which Snider recorded at Johnny Cash’s Cabin studio. (Don’t let the album title fool you; there are no previous volumes.) The momentum continues on “Talking Reality Television Blues,” in which he draws a straight line from the invention of television to “an old man with a comb-over” using his reality-TV platform to become president. “Framed” is a mordant reflection on a different facet of contemporary culture, where money is a constant subtext and we’ve reached the point of “watching media coverage of media coverage” until it’s all noise and cognitive dissonance.
For all his subversive tendencies, Snider has a less focused side, too, where his lyrics aren’t as sharp and the songs are a little muddier. That shaggier aspect holds nearly equal sway on Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” presents the evocative image of Loretta Lynn dancing with the Man in Black’s shade, but the story feels incomplete, or maybe just unnecessary. “The Blues on Banjo” is jammed full of acerbic wordplay, but it’s too much, as if Snider couldn’t stop going off on tangents while he was writing it. The song is also a mess of uneven musical accompaniment and an overly flexible vocal meter, and even guest spots from Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell can’t quite redeem it. That’s too bad—they’re the only other musicians on the album, which mostly features Snider singing and playing acoustic guitar and, occasionally, harmonica. Fortunately, he puts Shires and Isbell to better use on album closer “A Timeless Response to Current Events,” a mock-sermon that includes all three singing the refrain: “ain’t that some bullshit.” Isbell also contributes banjo and vocals to “Like a Force of Nature,” backing Snider as he sings remorsefully of a more foolish time in his life.
The wavering focus keeps Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 from ranking among Snider’s best albums, but even his middling material is stronger than a lot of songwriters’ first-rate stuff. Even if the album doesn’t hold up in its entirety, the bright spots here are plenty worthy of attention.
Check out Todd Snider & the Nervous Wrecks, live at Tramps in May 1998: