Review Summary: Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.
Jack Kerouac struck a chord with youth everywhere when he wrote his loosely autobiographical masterpiece, On The Road. It encapsulated the yearning of a social demographic that wanted nothing more than to be free; to explore, to experiment and to escape to something else, anything else, if even for a just a brief moment in their lives. The author was stepping up and begging the question, “I’ve lived
. Have you?”
No one has channeled this message to a truer degree than Craig Finn. Boys And Girls in America
(an excerpt from a famous line in the aforementioned book) is the topical manifestation of On The Road. Every character or story imagined is exactly the kind of person Sal Paradise went looking for: The kind of people who are always breathless, enamoured with life itself. It’s sex for the sake of sex, alcohol for the already drunk, drugs for the shamefully bored. The lyrics penned and sung by Finn tell stories of individuals who are rough around the edges; unapologetically imperfect. As has come to be expected of the front man, his lyrics are narrative, honest and often alarmingly succinct (‘I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere’). He takes themes as universal as drugs, alcohol, sex, loneliness (‘They say you don’t have a problem / Until you start sleeping alone’) and makes them his, personal to himself and to the characters he creates, while the broadness and universality of the theme makes them so easily relatable to the listener; a value absolutely key to the appeal of his lyrics.
Furthermore, his congested half-speak, half-sing qualities have the potential to be unlikable, even unbearable, but in this context and with this band and with those
lyrics, it’s the closest thing to a perfect fit. Look no further than ‘Hot Soft Light’ to see it all come together – the simple, bar-band riff, that single piano note that’s slammed just as the chorus ends, the call-and-respond guitar solo, and hell, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what these lyrics are about (‘We started recreational / It ended kinda medical’) – it’s all there and it’s what makes this band so relatable, so working class and most significantly, so fun.
It's perhaps their most important trait; Boys and Girls in America captures the sound of a band enjoying what they do. They aren’t shy to tell their fans how much they love making music and it’s a characteristic that not only shines through on record and on stage but it’s also one that has gained them a strong reputation as a live act. The self-acknowledged weird twist of ‘Chillout Tent’ (‘It was kind of sexy / But it was kind of creepy’) is disguised by an inventive trumpet-filled guy-girl chorus trade off, while ‘Massive Nights’ builds an anxious buzz (‘And everyone was partying / And everyone was pretty / And everyone was coming to the centre of the city’) that leads to the inevitable, colossal chorus, unselfish with its backing ‘woahs’. Even the ‘ballad’ of the album, ‘First Night’ (which makes references back to characters from previous album, ‘Seperation Sunday’), is free-flowing and piano-led; less constructed, more intuitive, and all the better for it, as the song is revived from its fade-out with a late full-band climax.
Most strikingly, this all seems to be performed with such ease. It's as if the joy they gain from doing what they do stems out of the haze of a blase, smoking-room nonchalance, as if they casually discussed their next move while stepping outside for a cigarette. The kicker is that it would be obscene to suggest such a thing and to even begin to suspect that they’ve not meticulously placed every note, every second of the drawn out ‘whoas’ in the chorus of ‘Chips Ahoy!’ or every clash and counter-melody of the piano and guitar on ‘You Can Make Him Like You’, and the reason is simply that everything falls so carefully into place. The greatest part is that this is by no means, at any point, a difficult record. It's as easily a pick up and go record as it allows listen upon listen of wide-eyed adoration.
All in all, Boys and Girls in America is as remarkable a tribute to the book that lent its namesake as it is simply a journey into the spirit of being young. Finn and co. explore the side streets and dimly lit bars of a loveless and morally depraved culture; how in some disgusting piss-stained alley behind a bar, a moment can occur that could define, at worst, a night, and at most, a lifetime. It’s Craig Finn’s tribute to his own Mississippi upbringing and it’s The Hold Steady’s defining record, one that is both critically acknowledged yet criminally overlooked.