The critics who praise the Hold Steady share a kind of collective relief that at last, someone’s making music for men in their 30’s who like classic rock.
But since when are men in their 30s who like classic rock such an underserved demographic?
I have had the band pushed on me by aging, formerly disillusioned rock lovers, and pushed again, and again. Nothing works.
I could never get into Craig Finn’s nasal wordiness and self-satisfied smartness, or sense that there was something great in the blustery arena rock of the band’s music.
It’s not that I don’t like smartness or arena rock or even nasal singers (if I could sing, I would most certainly be one). It’s that I keep listening to the Hold Steady and finding the seeds of a fantastic, shambolic ode to American life, the kind of pop rock that melds timeless hooks with a timely sense of the way we live now.
But in the execution those promises are transformed into a mess of sappy self-love. And I can’t shake the feeling that the critics and the fans are only there to be reassured, never to be reborn.
The band, whose fourth full-length album, Stay Positive, is out today, is poised to cross over from indie phenom to the big time with this one. It’s a shame in some ways that they didn’t break through with their last effort, “Boys and Girls in America.” There was a messier, meaner, and less complacent feel until now, some of the promise I was talking about. Now it feels glossed over, smoothed out, soul-sucked.
The album opens with “Constructive Summer,” and more specifically with a chunky, sticky sweet salvo from guitarist Tad Kubler. It’s a flaming, enervating beginning, but one all too soon undercut by the usual mix of malaise and anthem-making. Finn paints a character searching for the young soul rebels but only able to look backward for heroes, settling on one who is surely evergreen:
I think he might have been our only decent teacher
Getting older makes it harder to remember
You’re our only saviors
We’re gonna build something this summer
It’s rousing, and the touch of summer for a summer album release feels pretty good. But that “getting older” bit feels like a sting, and saying Strummer is the “only” teacher lends a sense of the hopeless myopia of age. The potential anthem is instead a snide kind of sucker punch. In the end it feels more hopeless for sounding so hopeful.
More swinging fist-pumpers follow, but while the everpresent topic on this album seems to be growing older, the lens is always pointed backward. On previous albums, Finn dwelt almost obsessively on adolescence, messy parties, drunken hookups, druggie failures, and the decayed parking lot just outside the American dream. Depravity and boredom were made into nostalgia, but all this going through of old photos never seemed to get anywhere. Nobody ever changes in Finn’s songs, yet his judgment is written all over the narratives.
Track two, titled “Sequestered in Memphis” talks of a pathetic kind of barfly. Here’s the chorus:
she looked alright
in the daylight
she looked desperate.
When Finn mumbles “That’s all right, I was desperate too” it sounds like more than just a condescension. And yet the song is singalong-ready, with an undeniable chord progression. It’s like music written for a movie, or perhaps the song written by a band in a movie. These pathetic characters are the ones we can pity, not the ones we can relate to. And the women in these songs are always disastrous. Later, on “One For the Cutters,” Finn glibly paints the suburban picture of boys who “pack bowls and then pass out,” but the woman in the song, well, “when there weren’t any parties / sometimes she partied with townies.”
After a few tracks the morose nature of the palette starts to drag everything down with it. We’re beyond anti-anthems into maliciousness. A number of songs dwell of one of Finn’s favorite topics: the lapsed Catholic consumed by guilt. He’s a Midwestern Jim Carroll. Yet for all the negativity, the references slam you over the head with knowingness, superiority, from inside references to other bands to the band’s own mythology (the recurring Ybor City) to just snobby stuff (John Cassavetes needs to be rescued from rock lyrics, now).
And Finn can be funny, and genuinely urbane, and he’s intriguing for his obsessions with teenage ennui and booze (one anthemic chorus repeats “half-truths and fortified wine” like some lament for a Cops victim). Yet it’s hard to find the center. It’s not particularly earnest, yet it is.
It helps to know that before they formed the Hold Steady (and before coming to New York), Finn and Kubler were part of Minneapolis band Lifter Puller, an angular, jittery version of the Hold Steady, just closer to youth and closer to the hardcore roots of both. Now Finn and company are being touted as the antidote to New York’s early-oughts New New Wave explosion. They’re known as a “bar band,” as if they made their rents playing classic rock covers down the shore. Instead they take the genre of bar rock and insert glib pontifications. And inside the songs are all sorts of references to having lapsed not just from Catholicism but from the youthful cultism of hardcore (“When the Youth of Today and the early 7 Seconds / Taught me some of my most valuable lessons”). So the loss all over these songs is rooted in particular moments of youth, particular thrusts of youth culture (particularly dogmatic, stylistically static ones). It’s understandable that the Hold Steady would want to establish a method, a brand, and put it forth as a faith for fans.
This is especially odd since the artist the Hold Steady are most often compared to is Bruce Springsteen. True, Finn’s gruff delivery occasionally slides somewhere near Bruce’s plaintive howl (and his voice is more tuneful and restrained here than on previous albums), and, particularly on this album, the piano lines and muscular guitars echo the E Street aesthetic. But Bruce’s lyricism is, for the most part, magnanimous, or bitingly sad, but never callous, never truly bitter. Part of his estimable genius is in finding heroism, or faith, or dignity through the hopeless, the failed, the wounded. The Hold Steady seems like they just want to smile, or worse, laugh at such desperations.
Kubler rarely indulges in a solo (though on previous outings they were far more in evidence), though his excellent flourishes are a nice break from Finn’s never-ending verbosity. Except when he finally does hand in a solo on “Navy Sheets,” it’s a morass of hair-metal overabundance and, is that finger tapping? Jeez. Franz Nicolay’s keys are a better element, bolstering the guitar assault and keeping the sound grounded. There are a number of guests on the album, and attempts to widen the bands sound with banjo (played by none other than J. Mascis), harpsichord, horns, and what sounds like a saw. Yet all these details sound like rentals, mainly lost in the melodrama.
The second half of the album slows things down, and has some pretty moments, many more walking wounded (including girls with “magazines and daddy issues”), some heavy (handed) biblical allusions, and some nice turns of phrase. The final two tracks, “Joke About Jamaica” and “Slapped Actress,” completely drop swagger for something approaching sophistication, but it comes too late.
Critics are already crowing that this is the Hold Steady’s best effort, yet it seems even less hopeful, interested in life, or invested in others than the band’s earlier records.
It’s a testament to those fans who have tried to convince me of the Hold Steady’s greatness, tha
t the band resurrects the twinkling eye of classic Americana, the visceral pump of rock wedded to real life. I’m still waiting for someone to deliver on that promise.