Review Summary: Perfect in its metaphorical duality, "Separation Sunday" is the Hold Steady's magnum opus.
As almost anyone from Minnesota can tell you, growing up Catholic in the Twin Cities Mecca of Minneapolis/St. Paul is one hell of a challenge. The metropolitan area is a textbook in duality; old school Midwestern religious morality colliding with the inevitable decay of urban sprawl; high wealth ranking suburbs nestling all too closely to vast areas of downtrodden plight, two large cities battling for supremacy, all split down the middle by the Mississippi River. Per capita, Minneapolis has one of the highest crime rates in the country while ironically sporting enough churches and cathedrals to cover as a US version of Rome. Home to Prince, Soul Asylum, Husker Du, the Replacements, and most recently, The Hold Steady, it’s also a hell of a scene. As several bible belting parents struggle in vain to reign in the seedier aspirations of their offspring, guys like Craig Finn grow up fighting this duality, reveling in exploitation while barely clinging to salvation, and lived to write about it.
Some view the Hold Steady as just a bar band, and their debut, “Almost Killed Me,” didn’t really attempt to belie the stereotype, with Finn sardonically bellowing about his Crystal Meth and drinking habits over an array of back to basics riffage. Growing up in a strict Catholic house in Minneapolis, it’s fairly obvious that Finn was an ideologically torn thinking man’s hood, the guy who quotes War & Peace and Revelations while mainlining in a darkened room. Judging by his obsession with pop culture, it’s often equally as likely he discussed the theatrical aspects of 80’s era Lionel Richie while tunneling miles of coke, a somewhat tamer version of Christian Bale in “American Psycho.” While Finn’s exuberances may be lightly staged, the fact that he lived to tell about them, and even to glorify them in exaggerated bombast, has proven to be a blessing to the annals of rock music. Without it, we wouldn’t have an album like The Hold Steady’s sophomore record, 2005’s “Separation Sunday.”
“Separation Sunday,” while not their most immediate or musically gripping album, is without question Finn’s storytelling apex, and is considered by many The Hold Steady’s magnum opus. “Almost Killed Me” was a raw, enjoyable, but mostly immature party record. Incredibly coming only one year on its heels, “Separation Sunday” is virtually indistinguishable taken as the sum of its parts, a concept album of religion that showcases an enormous leap in storytelling and musical maturity. “Almost Killed Me" had several cuts meant to be thrown on at a random party. “Separation Sunday” is a full blown album, clearly designed to be listened to in an entire setting. Where “Almost Killed Me” was all about three chord riffs, “Separation Sunday” expounds upon earlier talents with better hooks, more audacious arrangements, intricate mood changes, and big time piano flourishes. From a musical standpoint, “Almost Killed Me” was a step, while “Separation Sunday” is a full bounding leap. Backed by a much tighter band, Finn willingly grasps the reins of maturity, weaving a highly detailed and complex story high on character development. The reference able themes include Saints, Deacons, Rod Stewart, Judas, Minneapolis highways, Hotel Bibles, Eulogies, and the Mississippi River, but the most important is the duality and epic struggle of America’s, and most prominently, the Twin Cities’ youth, and their “druggy little messed up teenage lives.”
“Separation Sunday” is a substantial undertaking for a simplistically labeled bar band. While not their greatest album from a listen-ability standpoint, its trenchant focus, depth, and overall effort ensure its legitimacy, and is without question the band’s most epic undertaking. The great irony, and lesson of the album is while society views Religion as supposedly for the pious and off limits to the wicked, it really only transcends itself fully in an individual after they have embraced the dark side. Over a tightly packaged slab of bar rock, Craig Finn manages to remind us what religion is really about
: salvation, soul saving, and redemption, ideals that can only be achieved after seeing the consequences of ignoring them. The point is driven home with great force when one considers this album is really about Finn himself growing up. Although he often revels in the joys of tomfoolery and wretched behavior, Finn provides enough existential duality to prove that Religion, and ultimately salvation, is for the badasses.