Review Summary: The Hold Steady embrace change on their fifth outing as the kings of wordy rock n roll.
As much as The Hold Steady have been prized as the thinking mans rock band, they’ve never made you think too hard. Sure, Finn has a way with words and much of their music hints at something much more calculated than bar-light jamming, but they’ve always coaxed more out of huge choruses and sing-a-long anthems than just about anyone else. They’ve been fun more than anything, though always postured in a way where listeners could take a little bit more out of it, through references and clever one-liners, whichever way you like your nostalgia served. With their breakthrough Boys and Girls in America, and to a lesser extent its follow-up Stay Positive, they made the kind of records that made people wish they had stories to tell, places to be, and responsibilities to forget, and they did so with style – these guys are way cooler than your older brother’s rock band, no matter how many packs of cigarettes they smoke or how many fashionable tears they’ve ripped into their jeans, and that’s even more impressive when you find out Craig Finn’s nearly forty.
This timeless formula has seen them rise both critically and amongst fans as the last bastions of old fashioned rock n roll, the ever-reliable Hold Steady: power chords, woah-oh’s and a singer so sharp he could talk his way into anybody’s heart. Heaven is Whenever offers something a little bit different. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a Hold Steady joint and we’ve got all the regular customers: the kids are consuming enough alcohol to put a brewery out of stock, someone’s camping out by the coat check, and nobody here gives a damn about your rock n roll problems. But then there are songs like “Barely Breathing”, which go some way in showing just how fine tuned their songwriting skills have become, with it’s jaunty, woodwind-infused melody and the last thing anyone would’ve expected in a Hold Steady song: a clarinet solo.
It’s certainly a different beast than anything they’ve released before, and another big change comes with the production. It’s clean and clear as daylight, allowing subtleties to shine. This nuanced style works well for what they’re trying to accomplish, as the departure of longtime keyboardist Franz Nicolay (who’s directed his Greg Norton styled moustache towards a solo career and touring duty with Against Me!) has in turn led to Tad Kubler putting in the best work he’s ever done, shifting from more understated roles like the gradual composition of closer “A Slight Discomfort” to more immediate displays like the exceptional guitar solos in “Soft in the Center” and “The Weekenders”. It’s in songs like “We Can Get Together” where their new direction really shines though, in which the slow-burning, wistful instrumentation and airy backing vocals create a far subtler warmth than what we’re used to, and amidst Husker Du, Pavement and Meat Loaf references, it all culminates around Finn’s realization: “Heaven is whenever / we can get together / lock your bedroom door / and listen to your records”.
As a whole, Heaven is Whenever reveals itself as a change in ethos; they may have started as a hobby but this is the result of a band looking deeply at themselves and where they want to go. It’s a record of transition: amongst the girls and the booze and the drugs and the parties, they’re looking beyond the hazy cloud of cigarette smoke and seeing something incredibly human. It doesn’t work all the time, like with the painfully forgettable “The Smidge”, but it’s a forgivable misstep when you look at where they’ve got it right. “Hurricane J” has a man pushing his girl on to better things than what he can offer (and teaches us that a woah-oh enthused chorus is the best way to break up) and “Soft in the Center” comforts: “You won’t get every girl / but you’ll love the ones you get the best”. It seems so obvious but when Finn says it you think about it a little bit longer than you ever would have, tinged with tragedy but glimmering with a hope that underlines much of what’s offered here. There’s enough fun, intelligent rock n roll to give anyone their Hold Steady fix but in context of their discography, and with a little bit of prodding, this is something grander. Heaven is whenever, man.