Words by Alex Napoliello

‘Cause the kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own, and sing-along songs will be our scriptures,” wails Craig Finn of The Hold Steady on the title track of band’s fourth LP, Stay Positive (2008,Vagrant Records). Reaching #30 on the Billboard 200, Stay Positive made its way into jukeboxes across the country making The Hold Steady one of the most prominent bar bands. Perhaps it was the exact thing that Finn, who looks more like an investment banker type than a rock n’ roll front man, was singing about (the sing-along songs) that made hipsters and college kids alike sing in unison at the local dive bar. Or maybe it was tales of drunk townies, a girl who does too much drugs, and an ode to having a constructive summer that every 20-year-old could identify with. Whatever it was, The Hold Steady have risen to the top of the College Music Journal play list but are beginning to attract more than the Pabst Blue Ribbon drinking kind, ya’ know, the kids who now have kids of their own.

The follow up to Stay Positive, Heaven is Whenever (Vagrant Records), leaves behind the catchy, sing-along songs — a staple in The Hold Steady catalog — and takes on more of a classic rock undertone. It appears as if Finn and the gang are finally at a crossroad in their career and are retracting back to their roots rather than keeping up with the recent indie rock explosion. Still, the band’s fifth studio album incorporates stories of youthful, vibrant city nights and drunken stupors, but in this album, Finn is more of an observer than a participant.

The opening track “The Sweet Part of The City” is a slower-paced, blues driven tune, in which Finn sings about times where “we used to nod off in the matinee.” The second song, “Soft in The Center”, is a slower track as well, and ends with a heavy guitar solo, something true Hold Steady fans are not accustomed to. “Rock Problems” features yet another sharp guitar solo while Finn, rhetorically, talks about the rock n’ roll problems that they wanted…right?

Whether it’s reminiscing about the trials and tribulations of the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll lifestyle, or giving advice to a young punk rocker in “Hurricane J” (“Jesse…I see the crowd you’re hanging with/those kids don’t seem positive/don’t all those cigs make you tired?”), Finn plays the part of the cool dad rather than the Brooklyn squatter.

The last track on the album, “A Slight Discomfort”, bookends Heaven is Whenever, resorting back to the same slow, stick your lighter in the air, melody that kicked off the record. Aside from the slight interjection of rapid-fire drum fills, Finn rides off into the sunset with this one, singing about the comfort of living in struggle.

Heaven is Whenever is one giant trip down memory lane. For devoted fans who’ve been alongside The Hold Steady for years, you will find familiarity in the lyrics. However, it seems like Finn is trying to disconnect himself from the lifestyle that he embraced in former albums. If you’re looking to kick back with a sixer and jam out to some sing-along songs, stick with Stay Positive. But, if you fall into the “the kids at the shows will have kids of their own” category, this might be The Hold Steady album you were waiting for.

They really mailed it in with this one.

The Hold Steady
“Heaven is Whenever”
Vagrant Records
© May 4th, 2010



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