Heaven Is Whenever – The Hold Steady (May 2010)

The Hold Steady is my favorite band that is still producing new material, and though it satisfies the penchant for classic rock that I built in my later high school years, the reason for my devotion to the band lies in my appreciation for Craig Finn’s lyrics, which I controversially rank within the tier of Bob Dylan.  Their 2006 album Boys And Girls In America remains my very favorite album of the previous decade for its smartass lines (“Lost in fog and love and faith was fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere”), climactic moments (“When they kiss the spit white noise”), and its representation of the ethos of the youth of today through storied, character-driven hyperbole.  Their other albums, while less wholly striking, stand up to their 2006 opus while simultaneously differentiating themselves from it.

So after four albums, The Hold Steady showed zero signs of letting up.  Their most recent outing, Stay Positive, was even centered around their confrontation of the growth and evolution that simultaneously keeps a band relevant and threatens to alienate its fanbase.  With the song “Stay Positive”, The Hold Steady assured its fans that it would always keep their allegiance as a number one priority, and thanks to the band’s devotion, their 2008 discussion of growing older and moving with the times was critically celebrated.  I remained “positive”, but a worry existed in the back of my head: After you confront your impending irrelevance, how long do you have before it begins to set in?

Historically, the answer turns out to be that you have no time.  The Rolling Stones sang “Start Me Up” as the battle cry of the world’s greatest rock and roll band noticing that they were losing their edge, and that was the last culturally relevant record they ever made.  It’s not that I’m worried that The Hold Steady will become irrelevant.  The Rolling Stones were nearing their twentieth year as a band, and The Hold Steady are six years into their career.  It’s just that when their third most important member, keyboardist and key backup singer Franz Nicolay, decided to leave the band on amicable terms.  With their mustachioed member gone, The Hold Steady hit the brakes on any piano-biased songs and fuelled every song with vocals (I think Craig is finally singing instead of just talking) and guitar, but don’t let the idea of a guitar-based album fool you.  When I heard that the new album would be driven by Tad Kubler and his guitar heroics, I thought of The Hold Steady’s Almost Killed Me, their ten-song debut that sounded like a smarter-than-you’d-expect band playing in a rowdier-than-the-band-might-like bar.  Instead of a repeat of Almost Killed Me, which I quite frankly would not mind, Heaven Is Whenever, their ten-song fifth outing, The Hold Steady’s central sound wavers from straight rock and roll to contemplative majesty to pure melancholy.

Heaven Is Whenever begins with the first instance of slide guitar in a song by The Hold Steady, and it’s the third song by the band to not feature an electric guitar (the first being Boys And Girls In America’s “Citrus” and the second being a bonus track from the same album called “American Music”).  “Sweet Part Of The City” opens the album with thoughts of nostalgia from a now-veteran band: “Back when we were living up on Hennepin/She kept threatening to turn us in”.  As they get to the chorus, they keep telling stories of old until the old Hold Steady knack for imagery and storytelling kicks in with “The sweet part of the city/The part with the bars and restaurants/We used to meet underneath the marquees/We used to nod of in the matinees”.  It’s an appropriate start to the newest The Hold Steady album, much in the vein of Stay Positive’s “Constructive Summer or Boys And Girls In America’s life-changing “Stuck Between Stations”, and it adds the idea that The Hold Steady might be doing some experimenting on this album.

Sure, the album is somewhat experimental, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from “Soft In The Center”, whose chord progression is reminiscent of Separation Sunday’s “Banging Camp”.  “Soft In The Center” goes back to the old Hold Steady method of making a big chorus (“You can’t get every girl/You get the ones you love the best/You can’t love every girl/You love the ones you get the best”) even bigger with chanting backup vocals.  The old Hold Steady is still around, even with me liking the new.

However, problems arise on track four: “The Smidge”.  Earlier this year I derided The Jam’s Paul Weller for the second song on his new album, Wake Up The Nation (whose title implies that he’s a lot more important than he thinks he is, and whose music proves that he’s a little less boring than I thought he was) for talking about computers.  Paul Weller sang “get your face out the Facebook”, and all I really can say about that is “no”.  Craig Finn, in a really, really uncomfortable moment for me and probably him, too, sings “we used to lie to each other about using computers”.  Now, it’s obviously no “get your face out the Facebook” (I’m still a little shocked about that), but you can’t even forgive it after you realize he just needed something to rhyme with “Vancouver” (remember back when he rhymed Neil Schon with Nina Simone?).  I’m not sure why I’m so averse to old musicians discussing computers and the internet, but something about it just seems completely wrong to me, and it’s not helped by the fact that Tad Kubler’s rolling guitar riffs feel completely restrained to the point where their awkwardness manages to outdo Craig Finn’s discomfort.

As much as it tries to, “The Smidge” can’t completely derail things.  “Rock And Roll Problems” doesn’t have a lot in the way of creativity, but its traditional rock and roll is a relief after the sloppiness of “The Smidge”, and while it seems to be lacking lyrically like some other songs on Heaven Is Whenever admittedly are, its chorus quickly familiarizes itself with your ears and you just might end up singing “And I just can’t sympathize with your rock and roll problems” along with it.  “Rock And Roll Problems” is the reason that along with young hipper-than-thous, old farts like Finn himself love The Hold Steady for their bursts of Springsteenian rock traditionalism that reminds them of the good old days when, supposedly, music used to be a whole lot better, but as far as I’m aware modern music is as great as it’s ever been, so I can’t sympathize with their rock and roll problems.

On “We Can Get Together”, which goes through a laundry list of music references you might not get (“She played ‘Heaven Isn’t Happening’/She played ‘Heaven Is A Truck’”, “She said Hüsker Dü got huge/But they started in St. Paul/Do you remember ‘Makes No Sense At All?’”) only to arrive at the titular (both to the album and the song) lines of the chorus, which marks a downgrade in the complexity of their songwriting while simultaneously displaying progress to the band’s understanding of emotion and relatability: “Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Lock your bedroom door/And listen to your records”.  Like “First Night” and “Lord, I’m Discouraged” before it, “We Can Get Together” serves as the gorgeous center point of the album.

When The Hold Steady announced that they would be releasing a new album on May fourth, Craig Finn mentioned an album that would be “less anthemic and more complex”, but as songs were released, that may have been referring more to his lyrics than anything musically.  Take the first and third song released, “Hurricane J” and “The Weekenders”, which occupy slots seven and three on Heaven Is Whenever, respectively.  “Hurricane J” eases us into the album’s second act by instantly exploding into something that sounds about as anthemic as anything The Hold Steady has ever done, if not moreso.  “Hurricane J” empathetically fears for a girl whose life is moving in the wrong direction.  “You know I’ll never ask you to change/I only ask you to try” and “I don’t want you to settle/I want you to grow” are two of the most believable things that Craig Finn has ever written, which may result from his role being closer to that of a storyteller than that of a songwriter.  What’s always charmed me about The Hold Steady is the smartass lines that come across as beautiful, and “Hurricane J” is filled with them.  “They didn’t name her for a saint/They named her for a storm” et al. make “Hurricane J” a top tier song in The Hold Steady’s discography.

Along with “Hurricane J”, “The Weekenders” not only finds The Hold Steady breaking their promise of being “less anthemic”, but if finds Craig Finn actually singing, and the result is, surprisingly, not at all disastrous.  His voice even cements the pre-chorus “you might think I’ve passed the cross before” as the most memorable moment of the album.  Along with this, Kubler works on his guitar solos that drove Stay Positive’s “Lord, I’m Discouraged” to such incredible heights.  “The Weekenders” also brings my favorite new Finn-ism, “She said the theme of this party’s the Industrial Age/You came in dressed like a train wreck”.

The band finishes the album with an experiment (“Barely Breathing” features a clarinet solo), another anthem (“We’re good guys, but we can’t be good every night/We’re good guys, but we can’t be good our whole lives”), and a long, brooding finisher that leaves us on a pessimistic note for the first time.  It may just be me, but I would agree with that sentiment.  Heaven Is Whenever is a very solid album, and if this was a new band, I would pay attention, but it proves to be the first of The Hold Steady’s five albums to be less than revelatory.  If I had to make a compilation of twenty songs by the band, only “Hurricane J” would be guaranteed a spot, with “The Weekenders” and “We Can Get Together” having an outside shot.  “The Smidge” manages to be the first track by the band that I don’t like, even if I don’t outright hate it.

I suppose I could blame the departure of Franz Nicolay, or state that every great band falters eventually, even the decline in quality isn’t all that worrisome.  Instead, I blame the lack of youthful excitement that the band always had even as members approached their forties.  Craig Finn’s character in “Hurricane J” is miraculously believable, as the character Jessie is twenty-two, and Craig Finn is now thirty-eight years old.  Making his character less of a father figure and more of a potential romantic interest is a daunting challenge that he pulled off flawlessly, but his characters are becoming less and less convincing on other tracks.  I suppose this is why I still like the songs that are more anthemic and less complex.

Where Stay Positive confronted the age of the band members, Heaven Is Whenever did its best to avoid that issue altogether, which did not bode well for the band’s usually-elegant development.  Instead, The Hold Steady drove right over a speed bump, and hopefully the ride will be smoother on the other side.  Fans should heed the warning of the very final line: “This shouldn’t hurt, but you might feel a slight discomfort”.


Published in: on May 30, 2010 at 1:26 PM  Leave a Comment  

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