The Devil You Know by Todd Snider 

One bum track short of heroic on otherwise warm, wise, funny album-of-the-year candidate.

The most attention-getting song on the new album from Memphis-connected, Nashville-based songwriter Todd Snider, "You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)" is a big, fat dud. The song is a satire on George W. Bush, sung in the voice of one of Dubya's old buddies. Snider is a big Randy Newman fan, and this song is very much in the Newman tradition of disreputable, untrustworthy narrators. But Newman burrowed so far into his characters that he was able to erase the distance between himself and stalkers, slave traders, and other assorted sleazebags.

Snider can't pull the trick off. He can't mask his disapproval enough to fully inhabit the character. As a result, the song sounds smug. And it isn't helped by lyrics that strain believability: There's no way this old Bush crony would ever say "We were a couple of rich kids."

As the fifth of 11 tracks, "You Got Away With It" is a huge speed bump in the middle of what is otherwise a surefire album-of-the-year candidate, an album one track away from perfection.

It's too bad, because in an era of protest songs, the normally humble-to-a-fault, too-lazy-to-be-strident Snider has emerged as the surest voice of wisdom in all of pop music. And The Devil You Know triumphs on the strength of its other character sketches.

In giving voice to a bundle of characters on the margins of American life, Snider provides indirect testimony from the frontlines of "a war goin' on that the poor can't win." A man living on the edge of a "bad" neighborhood crosses paths with a teenage stick-up kid fleeing the cops and offers help. ("I hand him my keys/I say you better move fast/There's a J in the ashtray and plenty of gas.") A small-time crook talks his partner into another score. ("Did we get arrested?/No, we did not/Didn't shoot anyone/Didn't get shot.") An ex-con takes a new job but won't take any guff. ("If you don't want to have to hang your own dry wall/Don't push me too far.")

Best of all is "Just Like Old Times," where a coked-up hustler looks for some female companionship in the classifieds and spots an old high school chum, their motel rendezvous leading to a weirdly tender moment with a cop. ("No sir, officer, you don't understand/We're just two old friends drinkin' wine/I'm sure she is, but that's not all she is/She's also an old friend of mine.")

The tone of these great songs meshes beautifully with the two personal testaments Snider bookends the record with: In the first, he greets death with a shrug and a smile. In the last, he channels John Hurt with his guitar, tips his hat to hip-hop, tells a great corny joke, and responds to polarizing times with a hymn to uncertainty. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: A

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