Todd Snider’s made a career of skewering our inflated ideas of ourselves and getting back to the bones of emotion and ragged humor of existence. He’s a reliable narrator to turn the world upside down in his lyrics, offering his own nod-and-a-wink take on both his own shortcomings and the masks we all tend to hide behind. The very title of the album even hints at his carnivalesque take on the world.
First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder kicks off with the skittering funk jam “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same),” riding along Robbie Crowell’s steady drumming and Snider’s guitar and honking harp blows. Snider urges listeners to “put your foot on the rock / and push it to the good time roll” in the song’s first lines, and then memorializes avant-garde musician Colonel Bruce Hampton in the last line of the first verse (“here’s to Colonel Bruce Hampton / may he rest his good Lord’s soul”). “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same)” captures the experience of Snider’s live performances — his manic busking and rapid-fire talking blues — even if the song’s instrumental foundations introduce the album’s sonic sameness.
A few songs break that musical similarity. On “Battle Hymn of the Album,” a roiling, gritty, get down to it song that marches along the Delta rhythms of Crowell’s drums, Snider takes a page from Root Boy Slim & The Sex Change Band. “Never Let a Day Go By” bumps along a reggae rhythm, embracing a live-every-moment vibe, while “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” floats an environmental message.
Snider does embrace sentimentality on First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, including eulogies to two personal friends, John Prine and Jeff Austin. The moving and spare “Handsome John” is a somber tribute to Prine; the song’s haunting spaciousness echoes through piano, harmonica, and vocals. “Sail On, Friend,” Snider’s tribute to Austin, echoes The Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor”; Snider’s bright and shimmering tune evoke Austin’s own illuminating contributions to our music.
But careful not to get too mawkish, Snider pokes fun at organized religion across the album. In “The Agnostic Preacher’s Lament,” the preacher in the song delivers his simple message to God: “People want to succeed at everything they try, live forever, and never die.” And that would be heaven.
Ultimately, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder contains no surprises. This is Snider in all his glory, peering into the fears and hopes of the human soul, laughing at them, and telling funny stories about them while at the same time recognizing that one moment — death — is binding. But even in the face of death, Snider reminds us to poke fun at all the elaborate schemes we’ve come up with to assuage our fears, and to celebrate the memories of the good times we’ve shared with our friends.