Review Summary: Thrashing Thru The Passion is a bit more mature than The Hold Steady's previous efforts, but also a bit more fun.
The Hold Steady’s music probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. A man in his 30s (now 40s), who can’t sing at all by traditional standards, telling stories that revolve almost entirely around kids doing drugs and partying should be... kinda weird. It should feel out of place. But by creating a cast of recurring characters, and focusing on the more down to earth, human elements of their lives, frontman Craig Finn is able to implement a very captivating form of storytelling. Sure, many of their songs amount to little more than stories of young people having a good time, set to energetic arrangements of power chords and riffs. But many of them are much more than that, and many of these stories are a bit more mature now. And by combining simple, catchy rock music with this type of character driven storytelling, The Hold Steady has found a formula that’s worked well for them for the past 16 years.
Thrashing Thru the Passion doesn’t stray from this formula much at all. The themes are largely the same, as are Finn’s vocal deliveries, the instrumentation, and the chord progressions. It’s a Hold Steady album through and through, but it has a level of energy that they haven’t tapped into in a while. This can be partly attributed to the return of Franz Nicolay, the keyboard and piano player who’s catchy, boisterous melodies were a defining element of The Hold Steady’s pre-2010 sound. His return gives the instrumentation on the album a much more fun, celebratory feel, which is one of the things that made The Hold Steady so special in the first place. The album really feels like a return to form in terms of instrumentation and arrangements because of him.
But despite the album’s arrangements hearkening back to their older albums, Finn’s vocal performances and lyrics are a blend of old and new. He’s still singing about parties and concerts, the shady people you might meet there, and the shady things they do. He’s still detailing stories of drug use and drug dealing. But his storytelling has a slightly more mature and somber tone to it, as it describes the self destructive tendencies of his characters and the consequences of their lifestyles. Opener Denver Haircut tells the tale of a man who is a “bright light burning into a dark horse” and “rolling off the mattress, waking up on the carpet.” In general, the lyrics on here are more reminiscent of Craig Finn’s recent solo efforts, but they work well with a full band behind them.
The most glaring flaw Thrashing Thru The Passion has is that Finn’s vocal performances can become slightly grating, as he takes an even more conversational, half singing/half talking approach than he has before. It works for the most part because it facilitates his storytelling, but there are times where I wish he would put an actual melody together instead of taking such a casual approach. But despite this, the energetic guitar riffs and melodic keyboards keep the album interesting musically. And the stories Finn tells are clever and well written enough to remain captivating even when they’re delivered through somewhat lackluster melodies. Overall, Thrashing Thru The Passion is the sound of a band in their element, still doing what they do best after a 16 year career. And if they can continue to infuse this level of energy and charisma into their music, combined with Finn’s always excellent storytelling, their future is still looking bright.