In years past, the Hold Steady were America's most reliable "rock" band. They didn't just play bar bruisers, they deconstructed them — pulled them apart, commented on them and put them back together using only the essential parts (namely, the riffs and the alcohol tolerance). Their first two albums were sweaty and breathless, reconfiguring Boston and Foreigner in the same way that the White Stripes reconfigured Led Zeppelin. And while they were… read more »
In years past, the Hold Steady were America's most reliable "rock" band. They didn't just play bar bruisers, they deconstructed them — pulled them apart, commented on them and put them back together using only the essential parts (namely, the riffs and the alcohol tolerance). Their first two albums were sweaty and breathless, reconfiguring Boston and Foreigner in the same way that the White Stripes reconfigured Led Zeppelin. And while they were never condescending or ironic, they were always at least somewhat aware. You don't write a line like "tramps like us/ and we like tramps" without Derrida on your bookshelf and your tongue somewhere within the general vicinity of your cheek.
On Heaven is Whenever the Hold Steady have at long last become a Rock Band, one that doesn't want to kill their idols so much as become them. They are bona fide and unaffected, having fully jettisoned any level of remove and landed within actual touching distance of FM radio. They've also, wisely, done away with a lot of lyrical tropes that were looking haggard by the time 2008's underrated Stay Positive rolled around. Everyone loves Catholic guilt and methamphetamines, but Holly and Charlemagne were starting to seem like the overgrown losers who keep visiting teachers at their old high school five years after they graduated. We love you, we get it, but people move on.
So, thankfully, do the Hold Steady: Heaven opens like the Stones' "No Expectations," with a coil of slide guitar and a broad acoustic strum, and surveys the remainder of Rock of the Late 1970s from there on out, with Craig Finn shucking narratives and instead offering sage advice — here sung, never barked — to weary travelers. The mood throughout is cautionary: "You can't tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth," Finn opines, warning later, "22 and banging 'round in restaurants/ isn't that much prettier than banging 'round in bars" in "Hurricane J," a roaring Ferrari of a song that couches its tone-it-down message in tear-it-up riffing. Sonically, the record is steam-pressed to perfection: The backing vocals that buttress every song gleam like brass in the sunlight and the guitars, which formerly opted for a kind of dull-machete chop, here slice clean and easy. In the hands of a younger Hold Steady, "Soft in the Center" might have emerged punk-spattered and ragged, but here it's measured, plowing riffs calming down to make room for small twinkles of piano before rushing back in. There's more nuance on the whole: "Barely Breathing" slides slowly from tense quiver to full-on swinging New Orleans street band, complete with oboe and trombone, without seeming gimmicky or overt. The songs feel more like the result of careful planning as opposed to mere basement bashing. This is the Hold Steady in blazers, the grinning ex-heshers who have cleaned up and gone respectable.
The lyrics are subtler, too. Finn still namedrops punk bands and paraphrases old songs, but he's learned how to integrate those hat-tips subtly instead of building whole verses around them. "We Can Get Together," which provides the album with its title, executes a nifty lyrical trick, with Finn slyly musing on the relativity of heaven — in the first verse alone, it's a drug, a hill, a song lyric and a band (pioneering indiepoppers Heavenly) before concluding: "Heaven is whenever we can get together/ sit down on your floor and listen to your records."
That last part is the key: no matter how gussied up his songs have become, in Finn's universe, music is still the only reliable salvation. The Hold Steady used to line their paradise with grit — now its streets are paved with gold.