A musically eclectic and intellectually sophisticated band of merrymakers, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club has been a cornerstone of the Denver music scene for over a quarter of a century. The Auto Club first issued Cipher in 2008 via Alternative Tentacles, and a decade later the record seems prescient, like a live report from the streets and jungles of American life. The lyrics frequently wrestle with the nature of good and evil against a backdrop of the spooky, rattlesnake-laden landscape of our nation’s western reaches. This is the other old, weird America; not the one re-imagined by The Band in tales about the Civil War and the woes of farmers on the edge of the abyss. This is the lawless, ruggedly individualized and grotesque world of such writers as Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’ Connor, with a forbidding darkness that hovers like a hawk circling its prey.

Moments that seem like levity, as on “Children of the Lord,” are plentiful. But the joy and celebration are less a reminder to embrace life than an assertion that life is transitory and meaningless. Munly Munly’s performance in “Magalina Hagalina Boom Boom” is a great slice of psychic drama as he wraps himself deep in the song, becoming a self-loathing character seemingly embroiled in a defense of his reputation.

Such struggles have remarkable biblical overtones. The large, well-drawn characters of “Jesus is in My Body/My Body Let Me Down” and “Red Pirate of the Prairie” possess a violence and ambition cut from a cloth in which mythology is as instructive as it is terrifying. If you feel comfortable listening to Slim Cessna, there’s something wrong—this is designed to keep us on our toes.

While you could simply enjoy the psychedelic country of “Everyone is Guilty #2,” you’d be missing Munly’s word play and the way that Jesus is sometimes Jesus and sometimes a symbol of the hope we hold on to despite knowing that salvation is ultimately elusive.

The theatricality that buoys the album provides relief in those dark places, a multifaceted musicality enchanting us as often as it makes us think more deeply. And it often seems as if these songs made nearly 10 years ago predicted the state of the world today, with characters drawn in those big, grotesque terms we know from bible studies. Larger-than-life figures that contemplate good and evil inhabit each of these songs, depicting a world that seems like a professional wrestling match writ large.

We live in a world in which the intellect has become the subject of suspicion while crude and base emotions are celebrated. That’s ultimately what this collection is about: the fear of what we don’t understand and an unwillingness to embrace the other. Cipher reinforces the notion that maybe our struggle is pointless, that good is punished and evil rewarded or that we may never know which is which. That may be heavy for a rock ‘n’ roll record. Though many have suggested that rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t need to be smart, it’s sure as hell more enjoyable when it is.

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