Review Summary: At times, the band strays much too far from their formula. When they revert to habit, the results are stunning as always.
Every master story teller has their go-to subjects; the tried and true, never-fail musings that are guaranteed to win points within their target audience. The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn has always been an interesting study on the method of weaving a good yarn; he is a paradox within himself, the thinking man’s rebel, the nice guy who continually and blindly falls for the cunning wiles of scorpion women, the self-reflective substance abuser who laments in self-deprecation of his lifestyle habits but in the end throws them back anyway. To Finn, heroes come in a variety of packages and stereotypes, but among the quintessential subjects of his narratives; the whores, the townies, the Saints, every back alley of Minneapolis; the common thread that ties everything together is a sort of wistful nostalgia. This guy can remember every party he’s been to, and the characters he met, (sometimes a metaphor for himself), the drunken experiences had, and the city streets cruised all comprise the thesis of what Finn ultimately lays his head on; he’s getting older, but he doesn’t want to go quietly.
To put it more simply, the storylines comprising the Hold Steady’s fifth record, “Heaven is Whenever,” are not much different from what we’ve seen in the past. The characters are the same, and Finn still loves to recall the nefarious and tawdry behaviors of himself and mythical young adults, sprinkling in moments of salvation at the end. There are hints at Finn becoming wiser and gentler, first single “Hurricane J” has the same formula as past classics “You Can Make Him Like You” and “Magazines,” but this time around he is trying to act as a sage, or a role model to an out of control, earning-favors-on-her back-while-chewing-up-nice-guys strumpet rather than bitterly admonishing her loathsome behavior. Pushing 40, Finn seems to be getting a litter gentler, but unwilling to let go of being the cool guy at the party. From a lyrical standpoint, “Heaven is Whenever” is what we expect, and delivers the goods to fans that don’t want anything different.
When you strip them down, and you really don’t have to peel away that many layers, the Hold Steady are really just a bar band, albeit the best one on the planet. Amid the party-infused storylines, the band rose to prominence on the backing of an almost unmatched talent for laying down melodic, anthemic, raise-your-fists-to-the-air rock n roll. The formula of power riffing, major, bright chord usage, gargantuan hooks, and whoa-oh dude chant choruses set them miles ahead of competitors, causing near euphoric rock face experiences at live shows everywhere. Perhaps unwisely, on previous release “Stay Positive” Finn and company started hinting at the all-too familiar “we want to be known for having maturity as well” methodology that has plagued several great rock bands in the past. When your forte is Springsteen-esque influenced bar rock, “maturity” is usually not a good thing. In fact, it can serve as a major derailment.
“Heaven is Whenever” is not a typical Hold Steady album from a sonic standpoint. Sure, the old flavors show up here and there, but there exists a preponderance of experimentation (woodwinds, clarinet solos, minor keys, bluegrass influences, doo-wap bridges, etc) that sometimes work but mostly fall short. Losing the positively infectious, E-Street aping piano flourishes of keyboardist Franz Nicolay does not help the situation. The dusty, old west blues guitar on “Sweet Part of the City” is not sonically unpleasing, but the slow burning atmosphere is a far cry from previous album opener “Constructive Summer,” which could legitimately lie in Webster’s under the category of “fist raising rock.” Ballad “We Can Get Together” is lyrically brilliant with its Meat Loaf, Husker Du, and “I love this chick because she likes rock music” lyrics, but the layered synths and near lounge act performance of Finn does not go far in carrying the song towards memorability. The ramshackle dust of “Barely Breathing” contains a reflexive “The kids are distracted” mantra, but really the band themselves are fully distracted from the song, wasting an impressive riff by not capitalizing on the slow burning buildup, allowing a potential classic to collapse where it could have taken off. Album closer “Slight Discomfort” is disappointing, as the epic call-to-arms drumming and huge melodies at the end are only experienced after wading through three minutes of uninteresting minor chord brooding, possibly the worst three minutes of music the Hold Steady have laid down. Much like an aging great athlete, gaining “maturity” simply means you are starting to lose your fastball, and for a portion of “Heaven is Whenever,” the various curveballs thrown act as a metaphor for sapping power.
Like every great champion however, The Hold Steady have enough left in the tank to overcome the loss of a few tools, and when they polish off the anthemic bar rock weapons that brought them to the dance in the first place, the band proves it still has a knock-out punch. Lead single “Hurricane J” and the absurdly catchy “Weekenders” both ride massive, driving choruses, both landing in the top ten category of the band’s discography. Both contain “those” moments, the ones where the driving melodies blast enough surging energy to wake a coma patient. In the former, the transcendence lies in the bridge filled with hurricane metaphors, in the latter, it’s in the last chorus after the guitar solo, positively laying waste to the remainder of the album. “Rock Problems” is quintessential Hold Steady with driving guitars and narratives of parties new and yore. “Soft in the Center” surfs an engaging riff into a saccharine infused chorus so over-the-top sweet it somehow works, while the presence of a face melting solo from guitarist Tad Kubler provides the necessary stamp. The hand claps and “we’re nice guys but we can’t behave every night” infused “Our Whole Lives” provides one last kick in the teeth before the album’s close, perhaps serving as a reminder that things aren’t as quiet as they seem.
If one were to strip the Hold Steady in its current form to the smallest thread, they are still the greatest bar band in the world. The problem exists when an entity thrives on a certain formula, and tries to stray from it, especially when aspects like “maturity” are a direct oxymoron to the legitimacy of the concept of a great drinking/party rock band. One of Finn’s most emphatic lines from the record states “you gotta trust me on this one,” and it appears he really wants us to believe the Hold Steady are more than rock adrenaline practicioneers. Hopefully Finn’s laments that “I bet no one will learn a lesson” does not hold true, as the lesson here is despite how badly the Hold Steady want to be perceived as somehow more legitimate than they are, their real legacy lies in the ability to manipulate thousands of synchronized, pumping fists with zero effort or prodding. Unfortunately this time around, we have to be persuaded a bit, and try a little harder to get our hands in the air.
Soft in the Center
Our Whole Lives