Review Summary: Well if she said we partied, I'm pretty sure we partied.
The evolution of the Hold Steady has been intriguing. Although there is nothing complex about their performance from a musical standpoint, it remains difficult to assign them a specific genre, an accurate comparison (aside from Springsteen), or furthermore, to liken their style to any band in history. If stripped down to the last remaining thread, you may call it bar rock for thinkers, or even perhaps a pseudo ironic form of rap rock. The Hold Steady are one of those down home bands that rides the traditional formula of crunchy riffage, stadium sized hooks and choruses, hair metal inspired solos, and lightly dusted piano, a surprising combination given their massive indie clout.
Although over the years their musical craft would be honed and almost perfected, the meat of the band, and the overall appeal, is built around the free flowing and brutally hilarious wordplay of frontman Craig Finn. Combining the nostalgic beatnik storytelling of early Springsteen and 70’s era Dylan with a polarizing delivery all his own, Finn would develop into a parking lot poet over the years, weaving detailed and continuous stories about a vast assortment of characters. There are many labels one could assign to Finn, but one thing can be stated with absolute certainty after listening to The Hold Steady’s debut album: the dude had one hell of a time in the 1980’s.
The debut album from the Hold Steady, 2004’s “Almost Killed Me,” is a self deprecating lamentation on youthful excess crossed with a healthy platter of hipster-baiting snark. A loosely based concept album about wasted youth, the permeating theme plastered throughout showcases Finn both reveling in and regretting the excesses and dumbfounding decisions of his younger days, “The 80’s almost killed me/let’s not remember it quite so fondly,” and taking breaks to name drop pop culture influences and poke fun at “all the sniffling indie kids.” This is the first glimpse of the hefty dose of irony the band would serve up throughout its career. Any man who frequently name drops Neil Schoen, Robbie Robertson, Sal Paradise, and Rush’s “Moving Pictures,” all while wearing sweater vests, sneakers, and dark glasses, seems to be the quintessential and stereotypical butt of his own jokes. The fact that this is probably precisely the point is one of the endearing and encompassing factors about the band.
The strength of “Almost Killed Me,” more so than any other Hold Steady album, is in the word play. Although Finn’s lyrics on later releases are better, the musical evolution of the band is in its first, extremely raw stage on the record. The guitar riffs are fat, but the album is lacking in the beautifully constructed melodies, choruses, and hooks that bolstered later efforts. Most tracks showcase Finn spitting rapid fire barbs while the band rarely breaks free from the main riff. As a finished product it works in and of itself, but is somewhat stale in comparison to their future development.
Luckily, Finn’s biting self deprecation and social commentary salvage the overall lack of musical chops. On fan favorite “The Swish,” which carries the best hook on the album, he name drops Journey “she said my name is Steve Perry but people call me circuit city” while lamenting “I survived the 80’s one time already.” “Knuckles” follows an almost identical pattern, riding a start-stop riff with Finn name dropping yet again: “I’ve been trying to get people to call me Freddy Mercury/but people just call me Drop Dead Fred/it’s hard to get ahead when all your friends are dying/it’s hard to keep trying when all your friends are dead.” The post party fallout is felt on the musically weak “Sketchy Metal,” “I went through a razorblade phase/about $100 dollars a day,” and on the frat boy baiting “Most People are DJs:” “I was a Twin Cities trash bin/I’d do anything they gave me.” “Barfruit Blues” is an experienced and road tested tale about the challenge, or lack thereof, of picking up bar skanks: “She said it’s good to see you back in a bar band baby/I said it’s good to see you still in the bars,” while “Certain Songs” is a hilarious lamentation of the barroom juke box etiquette frequently argued over by stereotypical patrons: “B-1 is for the good girls it's only the good die young/C-9 is for the making eyes it's Paradise by the Dashboard Light/D4 is for the lovers/B12 is for the speeders/and the hard drugs are for the bartenders and the kitchen workers.” Perhaps Finn’s best line on the album is a scathing barb at the overzealous music dude he has met at countless parties “He’s bleeding from all the holes in his story/he said hey my name is Corey/and I’m really into hardcore/people call me Hard Corey/Don’t you hate all these clever people at all these clever people parties.” What makes an unconventional line like this work perfectly is that Finn is almost certainly talking about himself. This ironic duality, combined with the unrestrained, tongue in cheek delivery, is one of the quintessential positives about the Hold Steady, and is one of the primary reasons their songs are instantly memorable.
For all of the snarky one liners, hypocritical indie bashing, berating pop culture commentary, and post excess lamentation, there is one track where Finn relinquishes his bite and serves up an enormous dose of party loving nostalgia. The gem of the album and arguably their signature song, album closer “Killer Parties” is the redemption and culmination of Finn’s bipolar ranting. Where on previous tracks Finn didn’t know whether to blast himself for past screw-ups, “Killer Parties” finds him fully accepting the fact he cut a damn wide swath in his youth, and where he finally realizes he is damn proud of it. “Killer Parties” is far gentler than the rest of the record, and rides a cascading bass line that perfectly complements Finn’s proud tales of health neglect, and his attendance where they “threw such killer parties.” Although he seems concerned that “Killer Parties almost killed me,” the tone is more nostalgic than dreary as he prescribes “if she said we partied/well then I’m pretty sure we partied/I really don’t remember/I remember we departed from our bodies.” Their quintessential concert closer, “Killer Parties” is an experience seen live, and sums up perfectly what the band is about, even if it is as simple as “poppers, pills, and Pepsi.”
On the whole, while lacking the instant classic feel of later records, “Almost Killed Me” is a fully original, solid debut. While the band would improve dramatically both lyrically and musically over coming albums, there is a certain raw innocence that is legitimately felt throughout the listening experience. The weaving irony of the lyricism, combined with cutting self deprecation, reflection, and hipster criticism provides a unique pathway into rock credibility, and would lay the groundwork for greatness to come.