Review Summary: The Hold Steady's latest is yet another batch of fun rock anthems that prove the power of storytelling through music.
A lot of the time, the lyrics in a song are only there to facilitate an arrangement or vocal melody. And other times, words can combine with music to convey ideas and emotions with an intensity that neither can match on their own. The combination of music and words is a powerful one, and one that Craig Finn has been able to harness to the best of its ability for over 25 years now. His music tells larger than life stories about partying and adventure, often in ways that are frankly kinda ridiculous. He has spent most of his career detailing extravagant parties, drug use, and self destructive tendencies. He sings about having your socks stuffed with pills in a movie theatre, drinking out of purses, and the experience of leaving your body while high at a club in Ybor City. But what makes it so compelling is that he also explores the flip-side of these lifestyles, and their often destructive consequences. As such, The Hold Steady writes songs that are both celebratory anthems, and cautionary tales. It’s an interesting dichotomy that allows them to convey an array of different emotions. Recently, Finn has moved away slightly from these party stories to implement a wider range of subject matter in his storytelling, allowing him to diversify his bizarrely compelling and down to earth lyrical style. Because of this, his music in recent years is a bit more thought provoking and emotional.
But rather than explicitly describing the emotions he wants to convey through his lyrics, Finn creates characters and stories that make these emotions self evident. He’s not directly telling you what to feel, but it’s hard not to feel at least something when hearing the crazy, intricately detailed tales of the cast of characters he’s created, and how they unravel in such intimately human ways. And Open Door Policy, like Finn’s recent solo work, is especially powerful because of its emphasis on first person narration. It is still exuberant and at times silly, but slightly more reflective and melancholy, making for a greater sense of balance in terms of the album’s themes. It’s fun as hell, but in a delicate and thought provoking way. This is evident in Unpleasant Breakfast, where he informs someone “You just can't keep throwing up and then cover it with sawdust, and expect us not to notice, and pretend it didn't happen.” It’s silly and hilarious in classic Hold Steady fashion, but the lighthearted tone it creates is shattered when Finn narrates “And this year we were standing, looking out off the veranda. You said, "Yeah, I guess it's pretty, but I'm a shell of what I once was." That girl in last year’s picture, is now haunting her own hallways.” The way Finn describes his characters’ lifestyles and behaviour in colourful, compellingly specific ways is often funny, but his stories of their downfalls are equally poignant for that same reason.
I know I’m rambling about the lyrics here a bit. It’s partially because they’re an integral part of their music, but also because, in all honesty, their music hasn’t changed all that much since the band formed. 2019’s Thrashing Thru the Passion had a renewed sense of energy compared to the two albums released before it, and Open Door Policy expands on that even further. These songs are built around simple, catchy guitar riffs as always, but this album really captures the vibrant sound of their earlier work. Keyboard player Franz Nicolay re-joining the band (and co-writing a few songs here) has done wonders for them, with his jangly upbeat sound complimenting the band’s sound perfectly. A lot of these songs, like Unpleasant Breakfast form a tighter groove than usual for the band, meaning a lot of these arrangements hook you before Finn even starts doing his thing. And songs like Heavy Covenant have choruses as catchy as anything they’ve ever written. While Finn’s vocal melodies are fairly standard for him on this album, and can border on slightly repetitive on certain songs, he nails it on almost every chorus, and the band arrangements sound fuller and more varied than they have in a while. And finally, after nearly a decade, they’ve done away with that reverb-drenched production style they were so inexplicably keen on. While it did add a large, “arena rock” sound to their music, it took away from the intimacy that the lyrics convey. But here on Open Door Policy, they strike a perfect balance between fun rock anthems and compelling storytelling.