Review Summary: A newfound focus on maturity almost derails the best bar band in the world.
The year 2006 was memorable for The Hold Steady. Riding a wave of fervently building indie credibility and fawning critical acclaim after their quasi religious concept opus “Separation Sunday” in 2005, the band unleashed one of the most energetic, melodic, and transcendent rock albums of the decade with 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America.” The record was a force, positively exploding with memorable moments, and had both critics and fans lugging iron handled rain buckets to contain the drool permeating from their lips when played, read about, or discussed. Featuring a tongue in cheek ride through the memory lanes of America’s bastardized youth; “Boys and Girls in America” was all about re-living past revelries and glories, relishing their moments, and refusing to relinquish the free-wheeled abandon of being young and reckless. Led by the rapier wit of front man Craig Finn, the sound was big, the hooks were bigger, and the songs scorched lasting memories into the brains of listeners. While the record set out to cement a lasting legacy of Americana rock legendry, it ultimately proved to be the creative apex of a band big on wit and rock credibility. After ascending the path of rock glory paved by Springsteen and the Replacements, the logical question for the Hold Steady was what happens when the boys and girls of America have to grow up?
Perhaps foreshadowing on purpose, Craig Finn talked at length about growing up after “Boys and Girls in America,” promising their next album, “Stay Positive,” would be musically darker, experimental, more introspective, and would focus on finding maturity rather than boisterously loitering in unkempt youthful tomfoolery. When artists boast about an impending maturity, or praise themselves to the masses that their next record be any of the following words (depth, maturity, artistic integrity, experimentation, etc), the results are impossible to predict. If you are Pearl Jam after “Vs,” the result is a series of misguided attempts at depth and artistic legitimacy that do not come within a galaxy of your greatest moments. If you are post “Bends” Radiohead, your halo is stamped at the altar of universal worship and acclaim. For the Hold Steady and “Stay Positive,” the result was somewhere in the middle.
The encapsulating feature of “Stay Positive” is the record as a whole is unabashedly bi-polar. There are tracks that are arguably better than anything on “Boys and Girls,” and there are cuts that far exceed the worst moments of any of their previous albums. At times, Finn and the band extrapolate a bristling, uncontainable rawness of emotion that is the personification of rocking out (album opener “Constructive Summer”), and at times the newfound focus on experimentation and maturity comes across as exceedingly lazy and unfocused (Navy Sheets), a negative connotation the band had never been previously befuddled with.
The paradoxical inconsistencies are littered throughout the album in easily recognizable examples. While Finn’s singing has improved from a tonality standpoint, it lacks in places the striking energy of previous efforts. While guitarist Tad Kubler proves he is more than just a riff monster by breaking out a harpsichord on “One for the Cutters,” the overall effect is it installs the track as the worst in the band’s catalog rather than establishing some sort of diversifying integrity. The famous pop culture name drops and witty barbs are still part of Finn’s weaponry, and while “Joke About Jamaica,” a story about an aging Cougar that is terrified of her passing youth is lyrically legitimate with its Led Zeppelin references and nostalgic laments, the song itself is muddled by the lack of any redeemable melody or hook, opting for a talk box in place of a chorus. “Both Crosses” is a lyrical throwback to “Separation Sunday” with its references to Jesus, Judas, and Peter, but the incorporation of banjo, and tuned-down foreboding, morose strumming is not the forte of a band that excels by sinking its teeth into hooks and melody. Adding to the layers of inconsistency, tracks like “Yeah Sapphire,” and “Slapped Actress” both contain massive, fist pumping endings, but the listener has to wade through decidedly average intros, verses, and choruses to get there. Newfound territory for the Hold Steady, the combination of at times lazy, tepid song writing with somewhat failed experimentation renders a portion of this album a disappointment.
Although there are moments of colossal underachievement, its fortunate Finn is extremely high on redemption as a concept, and the shining moments of “Stay Positive” are unquestionably strong, saving an album that could have landed in mediocre territory. The previously mentioned opener “Constructive Summer” is arguably the most energetic, “raise your hands to rock” song The Hold Steady have ever crated. The duality of the layered guitar riff and frantic piano, crossed with hugely nostalgic storylines of high school kids getting wasted during their last summer of irresponsibility is lasting and infectious. The chants of “get hammered!” while drinking on top of water towers and “raising a toast to Saint Joe Strummer” are the type of barbs that cement a lifelong commitment, played at strategic moments. Lead single “Sequestered in Memphis,” a rousing, hook laden venture into Southern Rock boogie is the kind of cut that sticks with the listener long after hearing it the first time. Finn’s understated, everyman lyricism is felt throughout: “in bar light she looked alright/in daylight she looked desperate/that’s ok I was desperate too” while the band nails down the atmosphere with Springsteenien hugeness.
Where “Sequestered” was designed to bring attention to the album, the title track unfolds every Hold Steady staple; “whoa whoa” chorus chants, driving piano flourishes, big time guitar riffs, and tight hooks that would have been equally effective as a lead single. Power ballad “Lord I’m Discouraged” paints a stunning yet sad tale of the town whore, and how she is used and abused repeatedly by shady characters. The point is driven home when Tad Kubler switches from a slight melodic guitar line, dons a top hat, and rips off a deliciously overdone hair metal-esque solo that would make Slash spit out his cigarette. Always one for metaphorical duality, Finn switches the genders of the main characters on album highlight “Magazines,” an enormously melodic track that plays as “You Can Make Him Like You” part two. The best song on the album, “Magazines” is a scathing yet brilliant Finn commentary on women of ill-repute, and how they have a knack for using up thinking-man loser nice guys. Amid an almost too good to be true piano/guitar trade off harmony, Finn narrates the type of woman that nags incessantly: “Once she gets a couple of drinks in she’s probably gonna tell ya you aint doing anything right,” appeals to emotion and attention: “when she storms out of the restaurant I think you’re supposed to chase her to the light,” and defies any sense of loyalty: “one boy calls while the other texts/she’s got boys on board and boys on deck.” “Magazines” proves again that perhaps Finn’s greatest asset and most redeemable characteristic is the ability to craft relatable story lines, and it is almost certain that the demographic of Hold Steady fans are trapped in the dichotomy laid about by the song.
Although it is perhaps unfair to compare it to their previous masterwork, the final verdict on “Stay Positive” is while proudly maturing and aging gracefully are admirable ideals for the Hold Steady to embrace, the band excels far greater when acting less sophisticated. While Finn and company achieved rock n roll salvation on “Separation Sunday” and laid down a fist raising, instant classic on “Boys and Girls in America,” “Stay Positive” is the first time they almost forgot how to rock. For a band that owes a great deal of its success to portraying themselves as bar drenched beatnik poets and crafting anthemic, rollicking numbers, gaining maturity isn’t necessarily a good thing. Luckily, the element of redemption that is littered throughout numerous storylines across their albums came true in a literal sense, as just shy of faltering, The Hold Steady dug down deep enough to save the album, and ultimately, their legacy.
Sequestered in Memphis
Lord I’m Discouraged