The Hold Steady Cures Cancer!

I’ve been streaming the new Hold Steady disc for a couple of weeks on NPR, but it came out officially today so I downloaded it as I went through security at Dulles. Nothing like a 6 hour flight to SF to sink your teeth into a new offering of one of your favorite bands. As many of you know, it’s hard for me to be subjective about THS. As Evans recently said, “Behrnsie ‘hearts’ him some platitudes, but not nearly as much as Huey, who’s sure to claim that the new Hold Steady record can cure cancer!” 

Well, I’ll leave it to the good people at the CDC to pursue the efficacy of this claim, but I don’t think I’m lapsing into hagiography when I assure you that their new effort, Heaven is Whenever, can cure what ails you.  So long as what ails you is rock-n-roll ennui. Rock-n-roll ennui, as anyone who has been to an indie show lately, is a condition metastasizing in clubs from Williamsburg to Silver Lake, where trend-swigging hipster brats stare through safety glasses at the stage with indifference as the latest self-important automaton moans emotionlessly in falsetto. It’s a scene infested with incurable cuteness.  And cuteness has no place in rock-n-roll. 

The Hold Steady understands this like no band since The Replacements. They don’t do cute. They subscribe to a simple and familiar equation that packs a potent whallop—Liquor and/or Drugs + Doomed Relationships + Les Paul + Marshall stack = Rock-n-Roll Redemption.

The Hold Steady has spent its career exploring this concept of redemption; that perfect state of communal grace and ecstasy that is the adolescent concert-going and party-going experience… and the emptiness that often follows in its wake. Then they seek to recreate it onstage. But just the ecstatic part.

Although less anthemic than its predecessors, the fifth Hold Steady offering doesn’t tinker much with this basic formula, as evidenced by the cover, which shows the outstretched skyward reach of a concertgoer’s hand in a festival crowd, reaching for the heavens, striving to catch the sword thrown from the maiden in the lake that will deliver the Kingdom. From the Stones-esque slide guitar lick that kicks off the album, it’s clear that the band is more musically confident than ever, with the wizened experience of four albums and countless tours under its belt. With the departure of keyboardist Franz Nickolai, Tad Kubler’s guitar is now more up front and in charge, with veteran swagger replacing tentative stagger.

Lyrically, the disc picks up where previous ones left off—with Craig Finn exploring the back alleys and stained stairwells that connect the sacred and the profane.  The continuation of this quest is apparent in the final lines of Heaven in Whenever’s first song, “The Sweet Part of the City.”  When he whispers “we were bored so we started a band… we’d like to play for you… we’d like to pray for you” over a riff echoing the Stones “No Expectations,” he’s conveying a truism that we’ve long suspected but never vocalized:  rock-n-roll is how we pray. 

Amen.

The album’s second song, “The Sweet Part of the City” could be a lost single off of Thin Lizzy’s 1975 seminal work “Jailbreak.” For those fans who wonder if exhaustion and the advance of age have left Finn’s lyrical prowess any less sharp, thirty seconds in, he answers the inquiry with razor-like tenacity: “you can’t tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth… and I’m just tryin’ to tell the truth, kid.” The band revisits the Classic Rock genre periodically throughout the disc, most engagingly on the hand-clapping high-kicker “Our Whole Lives” that surely must have Phil Lynott humming along in his grave.

The eerie echo effect at the start of the single “The Weekender,” coupled with an oblique line recalling Equius (“there was that whole weird thing with the horses”), adds a haunting aspect to a song ostensibly about revisiting a lost romance that has devolved into an emotional back-up crutch. “I wish we hadn’t gone and destroyed it/cuz I was thinking we could pull another weekender.”  When the song bursts into a power chord assault and chant-along “Oh-hey-oooh-hey-oh” background vocals, we know we’re once again “up to our necks in the sweat-wet confetti,” back in the warm, familiar, and enveloping sonicscape that put the band on the musical map with its debut album Almost Killed Me.

The album is not without its missteps.  “The Smidge” seems thrown-together and last-minute.  And while, generally, sounding too much like Cheap Trick is almost never a problem (complete with references to “Heaven Tonight” and “Southern Girls”), the song “Rock Problems” crosses that subtle line between the homage and the derivative.  But the instant when you start to wonder if they’re slipping as they stare down the barrel of their 40s, they take you on a nostalgic journey to the rock shows of your youth (“Husker Du got big but they started in St. Paul/Do you remember ‘Makes No Sense at All’?”), and soon you’re partaking in the communal communions and sweat-soaked mass happenings that served as the band’s (and your own) teenage high-water marks, as the song “Barely Breathing” spells out:

Showing up at shows like you care about The Scene still
Where were you when the blood spilled?
They almost killed me
It got pretty sketchy
 
We tried to push forward
Now we’re climbing at the scoreboard
And if feels so amazing
And the crowd’s going crazy
 
Summer of ’88 was all heat and intensity
Saw Youth of Today at the Seventh Street Entry
There were skins in the pit
Some of them tried to kill me

But you can’t be a teenager forever, even when you’re in a rock band. And nobody knows this more than Craig Finn, whose musings about staying in the scene pasts it prime (and maybe your own) while simultaneously trying to stay vibrant and vital as those hormonal summers recede further and further into the past are well established at this point.  Like a Phillip Roth or John Cheever of the rock cannon, he has parlayed the exploration of these themes into a bourgeoning and impressive body of work.  This exploration is chronicled achingly in “Joke About Jamaica” off of last year’s masterpiece Stay Positive, “back then it was beautiful… the laser lights looked mystical… but now the boys are getting younger, and the bands are getting louder… but back then it was unified—the punks, the skins, the greaser guys… now it’s so competitive/ the sleeplessness and sedatives/ I know it sounds repetitive/ every show can’t be a benefit.”  It’s also a theme that is beginning to appear even in the works of much younger acts (see Against Me’s song “Trash Unreal”). 

If William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County and Lou Reed has New York, Craig Finn has the The Scene—a sad and beautiful American landscape of booze, drugs, concerts, and parties, where sleepless souls never stop wandering, lost but always searching for some kind of redemption… or maybe just the next score.  And despite “these metro guys…, the bloodsuckers and the parasites,” he continues to remain inspired by The Scene—because he knows that it once was unified. And he holds out hope that one day it will be unified again.  For Finn urgently believes, as his fellow Catholic bard Flannery O’Connor famously declared, that “everything that rises must converge.”  Or, as he says on the album’s closing track, “Slight Discomfort”: “We’ve seen scattered action and we’ve mostly come out unscathed/We’ll be alright/We’ll get through the night/Our struggle still feels wonderful most days… most days.” 

And maybe that’s why this band strikes such a chord in me. It’s the revelation that, along with the Drive-By Truckers and perhaps Green Day, they’re officially The Last Rock Band of My Generation.  They came of age in the middle of The Scene, just like I did.  The Scene—my Scene—is still alive so long as these bands are still vibrant and vital. 

But one day, they’re going to recede, just like those adolescent summers. For now, though, I’m still that guy at the rock shows, hand stretched high toward the heavens, waiting for the magical sword to drop.

- Erik Huey

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