Here in the pandemic that defined 2020 and this first half of ’21, while most of us have been working/schooling at home, binging TV series at an alarming rate and snacking endlessly to assuage the haunting sense of ennui, many of our favorite artists have been live streaming concerts over the internet and when possible recording new albums. Todd Snider has done one better, starting his own religion: The Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, an outgrowth of his regular Sunday morning live streamed sets. This album is his 14th full-length studio recording of original material, although he’s released numerous live albums, and a tribute album to one of his earliest influences, Jerry Jeff Walker, one of the early outlaw country renegades and the songwriter who gave us “Mr. Bojangles.”
While Snider has wandered hither and yon on the singer/songwriter spectrum, touching most of the Americana bases of folk, alt-country and roots rock as it suited him, it’s been his clever, often very funny lyrics that create his more endearing, memorable qualities. Here on Agnostic Church, Snider explores a funkier, more Gospel-styled music, while maintaining his unique vocal phrasing. In “The Get Together,” one of the names he attached to his Sunday morning live streams before settling on the current album title, Snider admits “considering the meaning of existing, and I’m pretty sure this ain’t it,” and continued “exploring the nature of being until he came to its very core,” but enlightenment only woke him up to the reality that he was now unemployed. Thus, Snider’s creed, if you will, is for the truly agnostic, that is those who know one true thing: that they don’t know shit. Comfortable in their not knowing, Snider and the faithful are set free to merely be, clap their hands, sing and dance, and be, simply be.
If the Agnostic Church has any other sense of identity, “The Battle Hymn of the Album,” suggests it’s that everyone and every kind is welcome. The song adapts a Union soldier marching rhythm and phrase, that “John Brown’s body may be dead and gone, John Brown’s soldiers are still marching on,” a tribute to the abolitionist (anti-slavery) hero. Otherwise, everyone is invited to “get down” while Snider is “preaching to the shit-house choir” in “Stoner Yodel Number One.” For the most part, the philosophy is that life is too brief, so don’t waste a moment, “Never Let a Day Go By,” don’t succumb to artificial divisions, live and let live.
Musically, the feel is lose and funky, call and response vocals over a groove that is deep and wide, but the underlying levity is rooted in an awareness that life is like the old joke that existence is painful and difficult, and altogether too short. Snider, along with the rest of us, saw a lot of loss last year. Walker died in 2020, and the opening track, “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same),” comes from an offhand comment he made once while performing. Snider gives a shout out Col. Bruce Hampton at the front end of that song, suggesting that the phrase is something the “rodeo cowboys would yell when they were ready to go,” before asking the existential question, “if faith moves mountains, what’s it take to leave them alone,” a curious way to ask why we have to lose our heroes, friends, and loved ones. “Sail On, My Friend” is dedicated to Jeff Austin, the leader of the Yonder Mountain String Band who recently died, while the passing Neal Casal, who played in Snider’s Hard Working Americans band is felt throughout.
Most touching though, is Snider’s tribute to his mentor, one-time label head, and major influence, the celebrated singer/songwriter, John Prine. In a breakaway from the funky energy everywhere else on the record, “Handsome John” is a gentle, simple piano ballad, where Snider admits “I didn’t know him as well as I tell everyone I did,” acknowledging the “singing mailman from Maywood, Illinois,” saying “you need look no further for your Real McCoy.”
All good things have to come to an end, even shady ones, and in “Agnostic Preacher’s Lament,” Snider confesses that his congregation wants God, if there is one, to “succeed at everything they ever try, live forever, and never die,” if that can be arranged. Also, he may have ripped them off promising something he can’t deliver. As such, Snider closes the album with “The Resignation vs. The Comeback,” which starts of with the good Rev. “steppin’ down,” only to find that redemption may offer him a second chance after all. Snider makes this great, fun album with the aid of Robbie Crowell (Midland), and multi-instrumentalist Tchad Blake, best known as a recording engineer. As for the “Hope and Wonder” in the album title, the uplifting music and devil-may-care attitude of Snider give a sense that there are somethings in life worth living for, and while he can only affirm for certain that he doesn’t know what nobody else really knows either, he did tell an interviewer that he believes in “love, forgiveness, and magic.”
Key Tracks: “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same” / “Never Let the Day Go By” / “Sail On, My Friend”
Artists With Similar Fire: Jerry Jeff Walker / John Hiatt / John Prine
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb