When Stay Positive was released, Craig Finn acknowledged that he was getting older and the record, as a consequence, was an attempt to age gracefully. Finn feared that by continuing with the themes that had made the band successful, he risked making his music stale. “I do feel like I’ve maybe rhymed ‘bar’ and ‘car’ a few too many times in my life,” he told Vanity Fair. Ostensibly that fear was justified and realized for the listeners upon the release of Heaven Is Whenever in May last year.
The post I reblogged earlier was a surprisingly unpopular (in the sense that its original 14 likes/reblogs is comparatively low for a PRR post) but typical representation of how Hold Steady fans reacted to the album’s release. They – we – were universally disappointed, and this led to a lot of overly harsh sentiment. Shapiro has two main complaints, the first being that nothing sticks out. This is pretty fair. Finn’s voice is less harsh than ever and therefore its typically abrasive punches are more like gentle caresses. The recording sounds far more compressed than their previous work, and on a casual listen it’s hard to remember what you’ve just heard.
It’s particularly unfortunate that the album was produced this way because it obscures some of Finn’s most self-conscious lyrics, and with a little work, that could’ve made Heaven Is Whenever the perfect album to go out on. In the best moments of the album, Finn inhabits the role of a mentor to the kids coming up from behind (James Murphy is analogous to Craig Finn and if I had another week I would’ve written that essay too, like you needed to read something else about that guy.) Shapiro criticizes Finn’s lyrical self-referencing as sloppy writing, but where he was saying things like “We slept it off in the matinees” on earlier albums, there was the sense that they were recent or even concurrent events. When he mentions things “we” did now, there’s a more prominent sense that Finn is summarizing from a distance, looking back on the scene now that he’sgrown out of it. Finn also talks about “kids” on this record more than any previous one, strengthening the generational divide. On “Soft In The Center” he sings “Kid, you can’t kiss every girl / You gotta trust me on this one / I know what you’re going through / I had to go through that too.” It’s like a warm, paternal hug, an arm thrown around all us clustered-up clever kids.
The most blatant example that should support Shapiro’s criticism is “The Weekenders” which makes a direct reference to “Chips Ahoy!” from Boys & Girls In America and Sapphire from Stay Positive (it’s unclear whether the girls are the same or if Finn knew more than one selfishly prophetic girls back in the day) and most directly retreads The Hold Steady lore. However, it has a very different tone to its progenitors, one of finality to it. “If you swear to keep it decent / Then yeah I’ll come and see you / But it’s not gonna be like romantic comedies / In the end, I bet no one learns a lesson.” It plays like Finn’s final kiss goodbye to the scene that he remembers fondly – despite how fucking crazy it was – but that he knows he’ll get nothing out of going back to.
Heaven Is Whenever isn’t as great a rock’n’roll record as the ones that came before, but as an admirer of Craig Finn and The Hold Steady, and as someone who the band means a great deal to, it’s impossible not to feel a little sad if you look at it like a farewell. They’ve been a companion, a co-conspirator, a brother, and on Heaven Is Whenever, a father figure. I bet in a couple years they’ll put out another album that totally invalidates all this sentimentality, but for now I can’t help feeling that if this were indeed their last album, it’d be a respectable ending for the best bar band still around.
the other day i wrote a lot about This Is Happening, and the takeaway from that might be that We are expecting (from our community’s most Important artists) big innovations, wild ideas, thoughtful and successful changes and progress on each record, and please fit these all into spectacular songs please!!!
maybe we apply this extra to the work of critics-as-artists like James Murphy, Craig Finn, Dan Snaith, Gareth Campesinos, John Darnielle, etc, because they are the people who want us to understand that they have a special critical eye on their own output, that their rawest expressions are tempered by expert conceptions of the nuances of pop music’s history and meanings. most of the time they satisfy us, and that’s why they stay on the top of our lists. they take pride in their critical receptions (consider MGMT at the other side of the spectrum), and they probably are the artists who can be really counted on to not release obvious hot lumps of shit, unlike regular bands whose leaders do not fancy themselves self-conscious scholars, and whose unfashionable influences often lead them down the path of taste alienation (sup MGMT again).
so is this an unrealistic expectation to apply to new records from our biggest indie heroes? maybe. but the alternative to meaningfully moving forward is switching on the old artistic autopilot and cruising for several records on the formula you established with your last Best New Music.
on that note, i’ve been listening to Heaven is Whenever, probably six times all the way through so far, and thinking about how even after a bunch of listens, on a record full of competent songwriting, not much of Heaven Is Whenever is really sticking out to me (sticking out like the first times i heard Constructive Summer or Cattle and the Creeping Things or Massive Nights or Certain Songs, etc). perhaps it will take a few more listens? (perhaps you disagree and love every track on Heaven Is Whenever uncondish, but this post is not about loving or hating the record, it’s about progress, and especially this point about the songs not really sticking out is one of taste, and we can all defer to pitchfork for that call winky face).
but like you know what REALLY doesn’t stick out and i need no more listens to confirm this (and which is to me the most important facet of The Hold Steady)? THE LYRICS!!!!! Heaven Is Whenever’s lyrics range from par-for-the-course intentional references to older hold steady lyrics (including a reference to a reference in “paradise is by the dashboard light”) to what i feel could be unintentionally identical rehashes of literally exactly the same shit he was talking about as far back as Lifter Puller and perfected on Boys and Girls (HIW contains lines including “saint theresa showed up wearing see-through,” “girls wanna go to the party but no one’s in any shape to drive,” and many sub-clever generalizations about girls from different regions of the country, etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc). the lyrics aren’t BAD, but they’re rarely great, and more importantly, the novelty of craig finn’s lyrical sensibilities is wearing thin after like seven records.
like aren’t you getting older Craig? how long can you be nursing exactly the same concerns? it would be one thing if you were getting discernably better at it, but how long can you be exploring seedy bars and the front seats of cars and “southern girls” before it bores even you? don’t you have some new insights to shed on relationships and the Twins and the other shits that must occupy your mental real estate? didn’t Kerouac head out to Big Sur after On The Road so he wouldn’t write it all over again? think about it craig: if Kerouac HAD essentially rewritten On The Road six times, certainly the first one would still have been brilliant, but would the sixth one have been?
the other thing that doesn’t stick out is the sound. they really should have held onto Franz Nicolay for this one (if he’s on Heaven Is Whenever it’s not prominent), as the pummeling guitar work is less evocative and more rock generic than on any Hold Steady record yet…
so in light of all this i’ve conceived an excuse for The Hold Steady’s lyrical/sonic stagnation: perhaps The Hold Steady itself became an extended reference to the eternally unchanging trad American bar band, to good time rock ‘n roll and On The Road, with Boys and Girls In America, after Craig Finn adequately aired out his roughest idiosyncracies on Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. you could argue that those are trad bar band records too, but i’d say that Finn’s vocals make the records line-crossingly hyperliterate, meta, too WEIRD takes on bar bands (which is conceptually really far from being an actual bar band), and then Boys and Girls and then Stay Positive and now Heaven Is Whenever are all steps in the direction of sounding like an actual bar band, having replaced the unhinged earnest yowling with something that could be called singing.
so i guess my point here more of less that i thought The Hold Steady was due for a shift in sound and idea, and this record is the opposite of that. Pitchfork is always asking, “is this band doing something new? is this band doing something different?” if anyone in The Hold Steady ever comes across this, know that i don’t want you to settle, i want you to grow.
“I got a lot of old friends that’re getting back in touch. It’s a pretty good feeling, yeah it feels pretty good.”
Jack is 5/6 of an engineer. He was always good at maths but he says he doesn’t know if it’s what he wants to do for the rest of his life, so I tell him he might as well make bank while he makes up his mind. The first time we hung out was after seeing Iron Man and we talked about podcasts because I used to wear a Totally Rad Show hoodie everywhere. Finding someone else who wanted to actually do things was life-changing. It got us into a lot of trouble.
“I get a lotta double-takes when I’m comin’ ‘round the corners, and it’s mostly pretty nice, yeah it’s mostly pretty alright.”
There was that night he told me to be out the front in twenty minutes for an adventure and when I got in the car he asked “Wanna go see Kylie Minogue for $20?” We didn’t know how to get around then so we didn’t get there until the last twenty minutes. We took some Roadworks lollipop signs from near the Botanical Gardens and had sword fights with some other guys. Undercover police stopped us on the way back to the car. I guess carrying them through the crowd at Flinders Street Station was a mistake.
“‘Cause most kids give me credit for being down with it. When it was back in the day, back when things were way different.”
There was that afternoon we drove up Arthur’s Seat so I could get away. Finding out your first girlfriend is cheating on you is confusing, but you don’t really need a reason to go to Arthur’s Seat. We parked near the sunset looking out over Port Phillip Bay and talked about the Big Questions. At night we climbed a fence and snuck into the Maize Maze but, anti-climactically, it was still growing.
“There’s gonna come a time when the scene’ll seem less sunny. It’ll probably get druggy and the kids’ll seem too skinny.”
There was that night when we were down at the beach but the clubhouse looked pretty friendly. They had it locked up at 3am but locks seem pretty arbitrary when there’s no-one else around. We were so out of it we didn’t notice the alarm. I went back for something and we had to make separate getaways, and now he’s got one less jail story.
“There’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get her the highest.”
There was that night after a night out at Roxanne when he went with Jill and I went with Jane. “I know you feel like you have to defend her,” Jill said. “But you really shouldn’t.” Jane knew all the words to “Little Lion Man” so the busker asked her for help, and I waved at Jack from a block away. We all ended up back at Lola’s anyway. We spent a lot of time crashing in St. Kilda.
“When the chaperone crowned us the king and the queen, I knew that we’d arrived at a unified scene.”
There was that night on my birthday when we made a bonfire on a cricket pitch and bruised himself running away, which we told everyone was actually due to fire brigade brutality. Everyone came back to my place where we played Dragon Ball Z on the Nintendo Wii and drinking games. It was fun to be sincere when we imagined we were Super Saiyans. Later on some of us went up to my room. Caramel was nonchalant playing Angry Birds in the corner while a foursome almost happened. Jack and I made out and it gave me a lot of perspective. Now I always shave before dates because I know how stubble feels. Ellen gave me candy nipple tassels; that photo’s floating around somewhere.
“And all those little lambs from my dreams, well they were there too.”
There was that night when he showed up with two bottles of vodka. He cried a lot that night. “Art students, man,” I told him. “No more art students for us. From now on, only Engineering students.” He smiled weakly and I could kinda smell some of what he’d left in the sink. “Nah, fuck that. Supermodels. From now on, only supermodels. Shoot for the stars so if you fall you land on the clouds.” We still quote a lot of Kanye.
“It’s one thing to start it with a positive jam and it’s another thing to see it all through. And we couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you.”
Now he’s dating Sloane, I think they met up at the Bay but I was ripping it up at Roxanne that night. On Fridays they called it Charltons and there was karaoke. We went from “99 Problems” to “Never Gonna Give You Up”, and now Jack’s having girl problems again. We don’t see each other all that often but when we do it’s always the same, and that’s the way I like it. Making marks on Melbourne, just a couple of kids in a big city.
The Hold Steady
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 Sundayfelt 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.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - “Jungleland”
Though I’d heard The Boss before, my true entry to Springsteen came via The Hold Steady. At least one of his Greatest Hits albums was in heavy rotation on family road trips we used to take out to the country, alongside Elvis, Dylan and The Rolling Stones (and Bryan Adams, thanks Mum.) As you may empathise with, it never sunk in until I revisited it all many years later, and I say “may” because there seem to be two types of people in this regard: Some are like me, having no initial fascination with the classic rock of our parents’ youths but returning to it later; others profess (or confess) to rifling through their parents’ record collections, organised in a way that in your post-adolescence makes you roll your eyes, and immediately opening themselves up to the canon of rock’n’roll.
After years of listening to The Hold Steady I thought it was about time I checked out this guy to which my favorite band apparently owed so much, and predictably I really liked it. Because I’m the very model of a modern major Millennial, all I knew was the cover art as it looked on Wikipedia, so when Clemons died last week and people started posting the full image I was blown away. It’s such a striking, powerful image. The two men have so much chemistry that you actually feel warm looking at the picture, that glow of mutual admiration flowing out of the photo. It’s uplifting and triumphant just like the album it covers.
When you open the gatefold of the Born to Run LP, completing the suggestive half-image on the album cover, you get not only one of the most indelible images we have of the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, but a visual definition of the sideman. You see Bruce Springsteen literally leaning on Clemons, his eyebrows ever so slightly raised, his mouth curved into the sort of smile you save for inside jokes. It’s clear that Springsteen not only counted Clarence as part of the E Street band, he counted on him: as a direct tie back to the sweaty and raucous black R&B of their youth, as a mountainous teddy bear of sheer physical presence, and of course as one of rock and roll’s finest soloists, capable of taking over the middle two minutes of the final epic song of the biggest rock album of the ‘70s, sending the whole thing giddily heavenward.
Listen to this with a candle burning and you’ll see your entire future
Stuck Between Stations
The Hold Steady
Boys And Girls In America
The Hold Steady - “Stuck Between Stations”
In late 2006 I was chatting on AIM (RIP) with a girl from San Francisco who I knew via Twitter or something, and I asked her what she’d been listening to lately. At the time I was going through a punk phase, that never ended so much as it receded, and she was super into all that nasally indie rock shit that apparently everybody in San Francisco was in love with in 2006. Like, Tapes and Tapes, Modest Mouse, Cold War Kids, et al. Not that I didn’t have my dalliance with all that, especially Cold War Kids which I initially hated, but at some point I grew out of good vibes and awkward, fumbling attempts at sex, which is basically all that music is good for. Anyway, she recommended I listen to The Hold Steady along with the aforementioned bands, and that’s where it all started.
Boys & Girls In America is the first Hold Steady album I ever listened to and the first that ever really clicked with me. Though it’s less mythological than Separation Sunday in that it moves away from the tragic trio, this gives it the benefit of being more simply universal. While you can tie some of the narrative perspectives to either of the characters - one of the lines on “Stuck Between Stations” is “words won’t save your life,” which is very similar to Holly saying “words alone won’t save you” on a track definitely about her - that they’re barely mentioned by name gives the record a wider point of entry for those seeking to relate. That said, they’re not totally absent; “First Night” reflects on where they all currently are, with Holly in the hospital not far from the bar in “Barfruit Blues”, regretting her decline and that she “can’t get as high as we got on that first night.” “Party Pit” is sort of her farewell song and also contains one of the greatest refrains in The Hold Steady discography: “Gonna walk around and drink some more.”
In this article which explores the religious themes present in Finn’s music, the author asks Finn which song best encapsulates the message he’s trying to convey with his lyrics, to which he answers “Citrus”. It isn’t the quintessential Hold Steady song, but the delicate acoustic guitar accompanied by Finn’s soft singing reveals the versatility of The Hold Steady as musicians. It’s a beautiful moment of pause among the heavier electric riffs and drum bashing, and makes the following track about a spontaneous romance between two kids who overdosed at a festival stand out that much more.
To introduce somebody to The Hold Steady I would reach straight for Boys & Girls In America. Though it lacks some of the punchier moments that Separation Sunday is full of, it provides such a refined distillation of everything which make them an incredible band. From the bar room romanticism and exuberant love to the pianos and the gutsy licks, it has everything you need to tell if you can still be friends with someone who’s never heard of the band before. Plus it has their best b-side, but more on that later.
“He was drawn up in the dark up at Penetration Park. He says he’s got your medication.”
Eric was a damn good dancer. We make certain assumptions about people based on things like appearance and occupation, so if I said he was a bespectacled apprentice electrician who once left a Stone Sour t-shirt at my house would your first thought be “I bet he has the grace and fluidity of movement of a swan made of clouds”? We knew him because he started dating Ellen, who we only knew because she’d dated a friend of ours who we stopped hanging out with after they broke up. We chose Cheryl, so to speak.
“He’s done with all the parties, he’s covered in contusions.”
There was that night at Caramel’s house when Eric said he felt like he could tell me anything. He was a pretty macho dude most of the time, and given his friends he kinda had to be. We never had that many meaningful conversations but it meant a lot that he trusted me. We smoked cigars outside the garage in the rain and he taught me about French inhaling. Only for douchebags.
“He was dreadlocked in the dorms in the Colorado corn. He says he’s got your vegetation.”
There was that night when he dressed up like Bollo for the party I threw for Jane. “I’ve got a late birthday present for you, man,” he said so we went around the side of the house. After that he couldn’t stop shuffling. We ended the night listening to sad songs played out of phone speakers and he fell asleep on a couch outside in the middle of winter.
“Guys go for looks, girls go for status. There are so many nights when this is just how it happens.”
Then there was that time that I started getting worried. He and Ellen had been broken up for a while but they were still friends. He dropped into her place during a party after some function wearing a suit and a red tie. “You’re looking sharp,” I said. “Yeah, I was at a function and seeing as I was wearing a suit I thought I’d complete the image by snorting lines in the bathroom with a hundred dollar note.” I believed him and thought nothing of it, but when he started cutting lines on the kitchen bench and ignoring everybody, it became concerning.
“He’s done with DVDs, he’s fully entertained.”
The next time I saw him was in photos in a slideshow. I got the news in passing via a group text invitation from Ellen to go bowling. “We aren’t coping sitting at home feeling sad and confused so we thought we’d go out and be together at this sad time, have a drink, have a bowl and remember our special friend.” From there I pieced it together from posts filling up his Facebook wall. Kathryn was the first person I told. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” she said. “Are you okay?” I didn’t know what I expected her to say but anything sounded like exactly what I needed to hear coming from her.
“It was song number three on John’s last CD.”
I planned my outfit the night before but on the morning I kept putting on and taking off this scarf I stole from a thrift store the year before. Kathryn told me some guys can do suits and scarves and some guys can’t, but she said I was tall enough to pull it off. Jack turned up uncharacteristically on time, he had a Heat jersey on over his shirt but he took it off in the car. We gave out hugs as a measure of courtesy but the only one that felt sincere was the one I gave Ellen. We held onto each other for an extra second.
“I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”
The eulogy started sweet and was joined by a chorus of sniffles, and then it got a little sarcastic and bitter and it all seemed that much more complicated. James didn’t cry, his eyes were dry the whole time, but Ellen said he’s a robot. I guess she knows her brother better than I do but it seemed like a suitable lead to follow. It doesn’t matter how stoic you are at the event or not, because the first time you find yourself awake at 2am and your mental barriers are weak those feelings will get you anyway. We didn’t go to the after bar because Jack had to drive, but we saw the photos on Facebook later and it felt a little tasteless. When he dropped me at my door we made plans for a booze cruise at the end of the week. It’s easier to move forward when you have something to look forward to.
The Hold Steady’s second album unveils Holly’s backstory and her adventures across the country with Gideon and Charlemagne. It isn’t strictly a prequel to Almost Killed Me; on “Don’t Let Me Explode” we hear Holly telling the fabricated story her and Gideon invented on “Killer Parties”, the last track of the previous album, so the chronology is somewhat ambiguous. Of The Hold Steady’s five albums, Separation Sunday is the most densely fictional. Where the others take detours to tell stories about other kids unrelated to the central three, this one’s told entirely from their shifting perspectives. Consequently, it’s the most detailed and revealing account ofthe “unified scene,” tying it all together through the eyes of Holly the Hoodrat.
When looked at as parts of a collective story, the individual albums seem like necessary and integral chapters adding to a sweeping meditation on the destruction and redemption of boys and girls in America. However, in The Hold Steady’s early days when this congruity was less apparent, I suppose I can see why Tom Breihan would call Almost Killed Me “a tangled mess” and say things like “Finn’s songs wheel precariously from one unhinged lyrical idea to the next, almost never stopping for choruses or going out of their way to fit into any sort of structure…” Evaluating the albums as individual pieces undermines the episodic structure of Finn’s story, but it’s difficult to do otherwise when the next chapter hadn’t even been written yet. Breihan’s a good critic despite the surprisingly critical review he gave Separation Sunday, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn’t have prophetic foresight regarding The Hold Steady’s career arc.
Finn’s storytelling is detailed if not comprehensive, revealing foibles and idiosyncrasies about the characters which make them far easier to connect with than were they built from cliches. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of drugs, bars and stolen cars, but details like “Holly wore a string around her finger,” “she’s got blue black ink scratched into her lower back that says ‘Damn Right I’ll Rise Again’,” and “Gideon’s got a pipe made from a Pringles can” are the kind of unusual particulars that give dimension to Finn’s America.
This is also when Franz Nicolay joined the band as the keyboardist after playing on a few tracks from Almost Killed Me. His contribution would span five years and end before the genesis of Heaven Is Whenever. But more on that later.