The biggest reason to love or hate The Hold Steady has always been their steadfast, unchanging Hold Steady-ness. Ever since they debuted a decade ago with Almost Killed Me, Craig Finn preach-screaming how those “killer parties almost killed me,” the thoroughbred punk-bar-rockers have tried to simultaneously sober up and stay drunk mindless good-timers and binge drinkers.
And then, for the next decade, they sort of… never changed. Which is fine — their music is technically good and strong, with doses of AC/DC’s classic rock riffs behind Bruce Springsteen’s rhythmically off-rhythm storytelling, all capped by contemporary lyrics about the uniquely modern remorse that accompany the morning after downing a mickey of Jack and accidentally cheating on your girlfriend at your best friend’s house party.
But at a certain point—and probably this was when frontman Finn turned 40 two years ago, but who really knows because they went on a several-year-long hiatus interrupted only by the universally mediocre album Heaven is Whenever — they lost their youthful in-the-know voice and adopted, instead, a stern-dad tone. This is a precarious choice for a guy who won over fans by screaming about how drunk he got last night and how sorry he is today.
But there are times when it really works, because the transformation feels honest — which is why The Hold Steady have been successful at all. While their stripped-down lyrics were formerly about monumentally stupid adolescent antics, now Finn’s telling us how he’s grown out of them. The first track, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, is a triumphant return to form and evolution of content: “There’s just these guys that I know, we go back pretty deep/ And I hope this whole thing didn’t frighten you/ There were times that it terrified me/ I know what they said, I don’t know if it’s true.” Play this back against Almost Killed Me and you get an impressively coherent narrative 10 years later.
At its most affecting, stern-dad becomes broken-dad, as in the melancholic nine-minute finale “Oaks”. But the lowlights kick in when stern-dad rears his stern head and strikes a hollow chord, which portrays his maturity as a vague and shallow sermon, as in “Wait a While”: “I’m sure they’ll come up in the parking lots and at parties/ You know you don’t have to accept/ Collecting boyfriends isn’t such a healthy hobby/ I’m sorry, but there’s other words than ‘yes’.”
Musically, there’s not much new territory explored here, which has always been the band’s weak spot. “Spinners” sounds closest to a flat-out impersonation of Bruce Springsteen, who has always cast a shadow over the band that Finn has probably enjoyed as much as been trapped by. And there are some murky echoing effects on the heavier tracks – a clear growing-pains result of having lost deftly moustachioed keyboardist Franz Nicolay a few years back and replacing him with a second guitarist, Steve Selvidge. If this is their new heavy sound, they haven’t yet figured out how to make it work. But that’s okay. They’ve got time: the future Grandpa Finn seems waiting in the wings to take the stage and wax nostalgically about parties pre-SnapChat.
Written by Michael Fraiman
OurVinyl | Contributor