Mike Ness is damn lucky to be alive. The hot-rodding lead singer of California punk legends Social Distortion has seen a lot in his time on this crazy planet of ours, including the years of devastating heroin addiction, the passing of a number of his former band mates, and about 10,000 acts trying to ape the signature sound his band created decades ago. With the release of Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, it’s clear Ness counts himself lucky to still be able to sling on a guitar and put that distinctive drawl to work, a feat that seemed unlikely just a few years ago.
After seven years of false starts, forgotten deadlines, and abandoned studio sessions, the D have finally returned, equipped with a solid new disc of the Heartfelt Punk Rock For Wayward Souls that has become their calling card. This time they’ve pulled out all the stops, bringing in soulful female backing vox and recording at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606, which gives these tracks an unprecedented layer of polish.
It’s not quite enough to excuse Ness and co. for taking half as long as Axl spent on Chinese Democracy to release the goddamn thing, but when you consider what the man has been through it’s enough to know he still had it in him. Though the line-up may have changed significantly over the years, the legacy this band remains, packing three decades of trials, tribulations, and life reflections into the span of eleven songs. Like a shot of fine aged whiskey, it’s strong and packs a little bite you’ve come to love and expect, but it’s still smooth and easy to digest. This is top shelf rock & roll, no doubt about it.
The album kicks off with “Road Zombie,” a wild instrumental number that the band has used as a frequent show opener for at least a decade but has yet to receive official album track status until now. The first single, “Machine Gun Blues,” is a sneering track that finds Ness imagining himself as a 1930’s gangster, avoiding hails of bullets and commiserating with “junkies, winos, pimps, and whores,” a life not far from the one he was living just a few decades back.
Continuing on the upbeat side of the album, “Can’t Take It With You” is a high-spirited rave up about living life to the fullest while you’ve got it, something Ness surely has come to understand as he has grown older and reflected on the mistakes of his past. He continues to touch on his former drug addiction in “California (Hustle and Flow),” astutely acknowledging that he “almost ended up dead like all those other fools,” a reference to not only the steep history of famed rock star excess and tragedy, but also a nod to the ruffians Ness encountered during his numerous stints in jail and rehab.
Though Social Distortion have never necessarily shied away from exploring their some of their more unconventional influences, this album finds them really going for broke and delving more into the soul and country and western flavors that Ness had previously flirted with on his two solo albums. The slow yearning ache of “Bakersfield” unfurls the singer’s frustrated desire to be with the woman who cleans him up and turns his life around in the pop-rock gem “Diamond In The Rough”. It’s “Still Alive” that stands as the true pinnacle of the record though, a track that will go down as one of their all-time greats and one that defines the band’s greatest achievement of all, the ability to still be standing after all these years.
Hard Times is one of the group’s most well-balanced efforts, a mix of ripping rock tracks and gentler numbers that reflect genuinely on a life lived the hard way. It’s a fully-developed record, the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work, and they cram as much into it as possible with seven of the songs clocking in at over four minutes. It’s equally ambitious and classic in its delivery, expanding on Social Distortion’s storied career while remaining true to Ness’ longstanding vision. This is what Social D should sound like in 2011.
Kudos to the band for seeing this record through to completion, and to Ness who sounds like he is still having fun making hard-nosed music at nearly fifty years old. He may be a forefather of punk rock, but he’s still a relevant part of it’s modern era and for that he should be commended. He just got his first face tattoo, for Christ’s sake. As long as he’s walking, he’ll be rocking.
By Alex Mosie