Social Distortion - Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Social Distortion

Social Distortion: Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll

Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll (2004)

Time Bomb


4.5
Eight years is an eternity in rock 'n' roll. Think of all that's happened in punk music since 1996 and it's astonishing. That was the date that influential and celebrated west coast punk act Social Distortion released their last proper studio album. 1996. A September in fact. In 1996 we were a few y...

Eight years is an eternity in rock 'n' roll. Think of all that's happened in punk music since 1996 and it's astonishing. That was the date that influential and celebrated west coast punk act Social Distortion released their last proper studio album. 1996. A September in fact. In 1996 we were a few years after Dookie and diving headfirst into the third-wave ska revival. This is long before Blink-182 spawned the many-headed mall punk hydra. Long before Refused and At The Drive In wrote the records that have been ripped off a thousand times since. Long before we entered this vast endless desert of pitiful new-school emo. 1996 is a complete other universe, and that's where we left our heroes when we last tuned in.

Sure, Social D threw us a live record in the time since. We've even had a few roots-Americana solo releases from frontman Mike Ness. However this did little to calm the clamour for a new full length. The tragic and sudden death of founding member Dennis Danell in February of 2000 set things back indefinitely. Despite the fact that the band pulled themselves together later that fall, the call of a new record became less of a realistic expectation and more of a mantra for those of us who were disillusioned with the "state of punk."

Oh, we heard reports every six months or so that the band was working on new songs, but expectations really didn't reach a fever pitch again until earlier this year. Yes, it was happening. However this excitement is a double-edged sword. It's fantastic to see so many people jazzed about a new Social Distortion record, but unrealistic expectations are a bitch. They're especially dangerous in the case of a comeback album from a veteran band.

If the disproportionate fan hype doesn't kill the comeback, the bands do a pretty good job at dooming it themselves. There's a tendency to "go big" on these sorts of records and we end up with overlong, emotionally heavy, self-important releases that aren't so much rock records as they're events: Easy to get caught up in but collecting dust on the shelf a month later. So I was elated when I first spun Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll and discovered what a pleasurable listen it is. I've always seen Mike Ness as somewhat of the soul of American punk, and here he's delivered us a finely crafted, enjoyable punk rock album, nothing more or less. After eight years we get ten songs, a nice sequencing and not quite fourty minutes of music. In short, Social Distortion have made us a rock 'n' roll record, not an event, and that's exactly what they were supposed to do.

This album is brisk, especially compared to White Light White Heat White Trash. That record's blatant alternative-rock leanings kept the tempo too sluggish at times and it's huge booming production values detracted from the roots rock feel that the band is known for. Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll sounds far closer to 1992's Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell. While I enjoy Ness' forays into country, those influences are far less obvious here and far better synthesized into the band's sound. The result is a very mature set of songs. At this point, and after his solo outlets, Ness knows the strengths in his song writing and certainly isn't going to sour it with an unexpected change in direction.

"Reach For The Sky" kicks things off in fine form, a fast traditional Social D tune that shows their return to form from the missteps of White Light. "Highway 101" is a beautiful song. The chorus is instantly memorable and it's the first true evidence that the band's song writing has grown for the better. Lyrically Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll carries quite a positive message. Ness is as defiant as always and still playing the role of the streetwise gutter-poet, however there's less open conflict evident here. The introspective turn is clear in songs like "Live Before You Die" and "I Wasn't Born To Follow." "Angel's Wings" and "Winners and Losers" mark the appearance of the Old Testament biblical imagery Ness has always drawn heavily from. However these references are less omnipresent than on White Light. "Footprints On My Ceiling" puts a respectable alt-country stomp to one of Ness' most emotionally touching tales of soul searching. "Don't Take Me For Granted" is the emotional core of the album. Written for the late Dennis Danell, it's been a part of Social D's set list for years now but gets its first proper studio treatment here. Upbeat and hopeful, Ness presents it not as a eulogy but as a celebration of life.

Instrumentally there's no evidence Social Distortion took any downtime. The rhythm section of John Maurer on bass and Charlie Quintana on drums is as tight as ever, while guitarist Jonny Wickersham (ex-Cadillac Tramps / US Bombs) puts on a phenomenal performance. It's clear that age and tragedy can't stop this band, as this is one of the strongest records in Social Distortion's already distinguished career. Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll is a reaction to the last eight years. It's both a tribute to a fallen comrade and a celebration of all that is right about rock'n'roll. There's always been genuine soul in the work of Mike Ness, but here it burns brighter than ever before.