Californian punk veterans’ seventh LP proves they’re still full of life.
Alistair Lawrence 2011
At this point, singing the blues is very much a personal choice for Mike Ness. Having seen the inimitable 80s West Coast hardcore scene bloom then bust, at his lowest ebb the Social Distortion frontman was accepting payment for gigs in heroin to feed his then habit. Having emerged the other side not only alive but with a string of fine releases – not least 1996’s White Heat, White Light, White Trash – the mark they’ve left is as proud and integral as a cigarette on a well-worn punk rock t-shirt.
So, what’s left? Thankfully, Hard Times... neither recycles former glories nor comes off as disingenuous. The hard luck tales are still here so, while it’s certainly familiar in places, they’ve also added elements to their sound like any band still looking to grow, 33 years into their career.
Opening instrumental Road Zombie neatly heightens the tension with its crescendo – not least because of the nascent fear that they’re starting by playing for time. California (Hustle and Flow) might follow by settling into a comfortable groove – "I went too fast with that rhythm and blues / Almost ended up dead like all those other fools" – but transforms itself with some soulful, soaring female back-ups come the chorus. Anyone familiar with Ness’ two solo albums will be aware that there’s just as much room in his battered heart for country, folk and other classic, American-made genres, but it’s rare they’ve all been unleashed upon us with as much joy as this. Their Hank Williams cover – Alone and Forsaken – fits the dark, tuneful tone like it’s the band’s own.
Stick around a little longer, dig a little deeper and, true, not all the songs heft the same impact. Still, with fewer albums albums under their belt than Green Day – with whom the band still share some trace of a kinship in their snottier moments – Social Distortion are clearly unhurried by the passage of time and passing trends. And it shows, as this is a fine addition to their canon and proves they’re full of a very important quality: life.