(“Exploring the Classics” (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music’s past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I’ll be revisiting albums with which I’ve long been familiar, in others I’ll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as “noteworthy” is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I’m not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
There are some songs that are extremely catchy and fun to listen to. And then there are songs with great lyrics that blow you away by their profundity or ingeniousness. But only rarely does a song fall into both of these categories. But dare I say it, I think that describes close to the majority of tracks on Todd Snider’s terrific 2006 album, The Devil You Know.
Todd Snider released a string of solidly-received alt-countryish albums throughout the ’90s and early ’00s, and even got a small taste of mainstream success when both Gary Allan and Mark Chesnutt cut one of his songs, but he never seemed to fully realize his potential and put it all together for one album. That all changed in 2004 when he released what many consider to be his finest work, East Nashville Skyline. He then followed it up in 2006 with The Devil You Know, which made many year-end lists and in my view nearly equals its predecessor.
This album is brimming with top-notch storytelling, stunning wordplay, and endlessly fascinating characters and stories that are supported by rich detail that make them feel authentic, all punctuated by Snider’s irreverent brand of humor. There’s a ne’er-do-well ex-con who squares off with his demanding boss, incompetent crooks who bite off more than they can chew, a pool hustler who unexpectedly runs into an old flame, and a tough girl whose steely resolve is more than a facade. The creatively brilliant “You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)” ends with a shocking (and, depending on your point of view, hilarious and/or disturbing) twist when it’s subtly revealed who the narrator is addressing.
“Thin Wild Mercury” is a humorous retelling of the late folksinger Phil Ochs’ reported dispute with Bob Dylan over Dylan going electric, which ended with Ochs unceremoniously being thrown out of a limo. I’m not sure how the chorus relates to the verses, but it’s a heck of an earworm. The album is bookended by two songs (“If Tomorrow Never Comes” – not a Garth Brooks cover – and “Happy New Year”) in which Snider, like only he can, ruminates over life and religion in his trademark manner. All this being said, the album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly the five-minute title track, which is, pardon the cliches, a breathtaking tour de force.
I’ll be honest in that I’m something of an alt-country neophyte, but this is easily one of the best albums I’ve heard from this subgenre. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s in the mood for an album that features some excellent hooks and highly intelligent songwriting that is equally funny and heartfelt.