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If only because it was captured on film, Social Distortion’s U.S. tour in support of 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster stands as a defining moment in punk rock. The album was loaded with anthemic tracks like “Anti-Fashion,” “Moral Threat,” and “Hour of Darkness”would-be classics for punk-rock puristsand the subsequent documentary, Another State of Mind, did a riotous job of chronicling the scruffy quartet’s touring dystopia. But for all the angsty adolescent proclamations and power-chord prowess, frontman Mike Ness must have secretly harbored the tarnished soul of a down-on-his-luck country-music bluesman all along. With the benefit of two decades’ worth of hindsight and a new solo album of unfettered evidence, the real Mike Ness beneath that black eye shadow and spiky hair appears after all to have been the lovesick born-to-lose soul revealed in early lyrics like “I’m bruised and I’m bloodied/Only she knows the pain that I’ve been thru.”
In the five-year hiatus before Social Distortion’s ’88 follow-up, Prison Bound, Ness reportedly spent a fair amount of time pushing the outer bounds of states of mind. While he indulged in alcohol and heroin and got a lot of tattoos, he evidently found both his muse and his savior in the music of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams: Prison Bound’s countrified ballads flipped the bird to punk rock to make way for Ness’ self-portrait as consummate loner and renegade rocker. The band’s subsequent albums, Social Distortion, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, and White Light, White Heat, White Trash, advanced the mythic image Ness envisioned for himself.
Cheating at Solitaire, Ness’ first outing as a solo artist after 18 years with Social Distortion, marks the completion of his self-transformation from sneering punker to country rocker. But Ness sans Social Distortion still manages to sound pretty much like Social Distortion, even with folks like Bruce Springsteen and Brian Setzer filling in for his usual band. He’s packed in a few extra country and western standards (Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin’s “Long Black Veil,” Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” and Al Ferrier’s “Send Her Back”) and brought along some unlikely guests, but it isn’t exactly a transcendent effort. It’s the byproduct of a dubious experiment.
Ness specializes in batting around unwieldly clichésthe knuckles of his left and right hands are tattooed with the words “LOVE” and “PAIN,” fer chrissakeswhich, all told, make for fairly decent country-rock songs. He has rustled up some steel guitar players and an upright bassist and appears to have honest intentions about making a toned-down country record, but he isn’t really capable of ditching his growling rock roar for full-on twang.
Ness’ lyrics are rife with gambling metaphors, substance abuse similes, and ongoing explorations of debilitating duality that has plagued him throughout his musical career with Social Distortion: heaven/hell, god/devil, hard luck/fortune, clarity/confusion, freedom/prison, and so on.
On “Misery Loves Company,” a subtly spirited duet with Springsteen, Ness and the Boss together bust lines like “We used to dance under moonlight/But then the stars began to fall/And baby that ain’t right/Cuz’ losing you/was part of the game/And misery loves company.” Springsteen is probably the embodiment of Ness’ idyllic vision of blue-collar American rock, and the duet plays as if Ness is signifying his personal arrival into that world.
Ness gets a little goofy with “I’m in Love With My Car,” a smirking ode to his cherished wheels à la “Hot Rod Lincoln” that probably bears a little too much in the way of truth. As if to complete his cliché, Ness must have mined his classic car club for some miserable company: The usually insufferable Brian Setzer (of Stray Cats fame) puts in a swaggering and sufferable series of sleazy guitar licks on the horn-heavy “Crime Don’t Pay,” but the bad influence is unmistakable when Ness closes the song with a Gap-ad-ready quip: “Don’t sweat me daddy-o.” CP