The Hold Steady - "Constructive Summer"
Stay Positive moves away from the story of Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne and into a brand new story about a murdered townie. Jason Crock sardonically describes the setup in his Pitchfork review:
On one of the band’s more ambitious musical diversions, “One for the Cutters”, the guitars follow the lead of (no joke) a harpsichord while Finn relates the tale of a college girl who gets high a little too often and starts to party with townies— no new subject matter there, until she finds out the difference between them and her freshman hookups is a proclivity to stab people.
And it takes off from there.
The story is less sprawling in comparison to their earlier albums. Where Separation Sunday felt like a novel, Stay Positive is more like an episode of Law & Order. It hinges entirely on that one event with characters and perspectives being filled in after the fact, but the plot itself never really advances. It’s a different method of storytelling than the (somewhat) linear narrative of earlier records. We begin with a superficial account of the stabbing from a girl who’s got a crush on the killer, and as the album progresses we see it through the eyes of another townie, the killer, the victim’s girlfriend (a girl called Sapphire who has prophetic visions), and the victim himself as he calls Sapphire in his final moments, dying in the clearing at the quarry. It is essentially about a town torn apart by the death of a young kid; if their earlier records borrowed from Kerouac, does Stay Positive borrow from Lynch?
Though the album has fewer stand-out tracks in terms of lyricism, musically it’s their most complex, and this is partially to the credit of Franz Nicolay:
Everything from helping us to understand why something works to – well, for starters, the piano and the keyboard are such dynamic instruments, and having Franz be able to play all of these other instruments, too, and play them well, can really add a lot of things. The harpsichord in “One for the Cutters” is something he came up with and he was able to find a harpsichord for it, too. That’s the kind of thing that can help you to grow musically. It’s been cool to have someone that musical in the band.
This interview makes it especially clear that Nicolay’s role in the band became integral to defining their gripping, homiletic sound as he was the most musical. Despite not being a founding member of the band and now no longer a member of the band at all, Nicolay was just as crucial in the success of The Hold Steady as Craig Finn and Tad Kubler. The melodies he injects into some of the harder songs balance them in a way that makes them far more palatable than were they all guitar buzz and Finn’s shouting, and it’s reductive to ignore the fact that, while Nicolay was in the band, The Hold Steady made their best albums. Finn speaks incredibly highly of Tad Kubler (“He’s a really, really amazing guitar player. I don’t know anyone around that holds up to him in modern rock”), but it’s interesting that he notes that “Franz especially” contributed to the songwriting process. While Kubler is an incredible guitar player, his strength seems to lie in his versatility and ability to adapt to whatever sound the song needs, whereas Nicolay had the spark that lit the fire.