Ah, the curse of the smart-ass. Singer/songwriting country rocker Todd Snider's 1994 debut, Songs for the Daily Planet, outstripped anything Elvis Costello or Randy Newman had done in years for sheer bitter bite. But from the cultural parody of the opener, "My Generation (Part 2)" (verse 3, chapter 4, Jackson Five, Nikki Sixx), to the concluding hidden track, "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," all the deft buddump-bump-tsssssss eclipsed moments of brooding vulnerability and moving storytelling in between. A couple of albums later, the most incisive act that's ever been remotely associated with Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville label went an exit too far in the other direction with the straight heartland rock of 1998's Viva Satellite.
Snider's latest, Happy to Be Here -- neither plain nor cloyingly clever -- manages to open your mind to rumination rather than snap it shut on opaque wit. In "Long Year," as wistful as it is cranky, he sings, "You know, I've always been afraid of the 12-step crowd/They laugh too hard, talk too loud." "Lonely Girl" is gently Springsteenish, with such evocations as "Like a sunny day someplace else, the music plays, but it doesn't help." Even riffs on obsessive-compulsive girlfriends and the futility of prenuptial agreements are handled with subtlety as well as humor. And the music has gained as much texture as the words, with Snider's woody strumming and meaty tenor sounding more at ease and richly recorded than ever. As Newman and Costello learned, playing the smart-ass can make you popular, but really opening up can make you great.