The Hold Steady, Heaven Is Whenever
By Ryan Hamm
May 4, 2010
The Hold Steady has long been known as the best bar band in the world. Unabashed aficionados of 80s titans of blue-collar rock (think Bruce Springsteen), slinky blues-metal (AC/DC and Thin Lizzy) and hyper-literate speed punk (Hüsker Dü), the band managed to pour all of these influences (plus a heaping dose of Jack Kerouac, partying and Catholicism) into a massively accessible, sing-along-till-you’re-hoarse brand of arena rock. This was a band that could unironically pull out a double-necked guitar at a show and also get a crowd of rowdy fans to shout along “D--- right I’ll rise again” in relation to a line about the Christian belief in the Resurrection of the Dead.
So it’s a little sad that some of that massive energy, accessibility and shockingly insightful lyrics about faith and relationships are missing in part on the band’s newest release, Heaven Is Whenever. Sure, the album has its moments here and there, but you won’t catch yourself pumping a triumphant fist or yelling out lyrics very often. Instead, the album comes across as workmanlike, with a band that knows what it’s doing putting out a record that doesn’t do much to advance their music (to be fair, it doesn’t do anything to set it back either).
Part of this “running in place” feeling might be due to the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Nicolay’s keys were all over the band’s previous two albums, lending an anthemic quality to tracks like “Stuck Between Stations” and “Magazines.” In fact, for a band so notably based on rock guitar, it’s a bit surprising how much Nicolay’s contributions are missed. Even when the key licks served as a foil to Tad Kubler’s (ridiculously awesome) riffs, they lent a different dimension that’s often missing on Heaven. Plus, Nicolay had a crazy mustache and wore a beret, which meant his cool quotient was off the charts.
That’s not to say Kubler can’t more than handle his own on some of these songs. “The Weekenders” (the albums’ strongest track) allows Kubler to play with dynamics in a way he doesn’t normally get to, with tinkling harmonics giving way to a huge guitar solo with plenty of crunch in between. And on “The Smidge,” the guitar takes on a dirty-boogie sound, with a lower register providing a perfect backdrop to lead singer Craig Finn’s sordid tale of relationships done in by reliance on technology and overindulgence in alcohol.
As with any Hold Steady album, Heaven is worth picking up for Finn’s funny, insightful and occasionally caustic observations on human (and spiritual) drama. He often uses his Catholic upbringing to provide surprising religious metaphors for life. In “The Smidge” he compares the early glow of the party scene to “faith” but then when things take a dark turn, realizes it looks more like the “void.” And that’s before he asks someone to “make the sign of the cross with your cigarette.”
In “The Weekenders,” Finn notes that his tale is “not going to be like in romantic comedies / in the end no one learns a lesson.” “Hurricane J” tells the story of a waitress who makes some terrible choices that Finn wants to help: “I don’t want you to settle/ I want you to grow/ forget all the boys you met at the harbor/ you’re too hard already/ you’ll only get harder.”
In “Hurricane J” Finn notes that the main character he’s singing about is named after a storm, not a saint. That’s in direct opposition to many of the other albums by the Hold Steady. Each of them has plenty of characters that resemble “Hurricane”’s Jessie, filled with hard luck and too much to drink and way too many drugs, but a lot of their stories are told like cautionary hagiographies. Separation Sunday is a concept album about a girl named Holly (short for Hallelujah) who has a vision of Jesus that leads her to go before a church on Easter Sunday and tell the congregation “how a resurrection really feels.” And Stay Positive had groups of people coming to some kind of redemption through music (using music as religious experience). It’s strange to hear Finn’s characters on this album sound less poignant—instead of familiar friends or people we’re alternately hurting with, having fun with or worrying about, it’s like a group of arm’s length caricatures we’ve not seen before. (And long-time Hold Steady fans will be disappointed that there’s no mention of Holly or Charlamagne on Heaven.)
All in all, Heaven Is Whenever isn’t a bad album. It’s just not as good as any of the other ones that the Hold Steady have made (strangely, even their debut Almost Killed Me, for all of its rawness, sounds like they cared more about making it). There are moments that shine and give some hope of the new Hold Steady sound to come (especially in “The Weekenders” and the killer clarinet (!) solo in “Barely Breathing”), and Finn’s got his share of surprising bon mots. Longtime Hold Steady fans will still want to pick this one up while steeling themselves for some disappointment; first time listeners, do yourself a (giant) favor and pick up Boys & Girls in America. Hopefully on the next album, this way-way-way-more-talented-than-a-bar-band group will put the pieces together and deliver another modern classic.