The Hold Steady

Heaven is Whenever

Are The Hold Steady maturing gracefully? It seems that their beery laddish instincts have faded slightly since 2008’s turbulent Stay Positive. Eccentric keyboard player Franz Nicolay has departed – which might leave a slight hole onstage, we will have to see, some June UK tour – and Craig Finn has seemingly guided the band to an altogether more reflective mode.

Maybe they are just getting older, which is fine, as this is a band who has always grasped positive vibes from the move toward greyness. Indeed, that is the very point of this beautifully unglamorous gang of a band… moving from cheery beery bonhomie to golden uncles. They have built a career out of twisting the familiar and the irony being that, in sounding like so many artists they have attained genuine unique attack. No easy feat. But will they soften in the manner of many of their most profound influences?

So far, they Hold Steady ship has remained on course. The surprise he is the gulf that exists between this set of adult tunes and the last mad surge of very late youth that flavoured Stay Positive. On that album, one song in particular, ‘Sequested in Memphis’ kept me hitting the repeat play button throughout that summer. They have done it again here, with the album’s hinge moment, ‘We Can Be Together’, a hugely evocative tribute to suicide victim Matthew Fletcher, drummer from Oxford band Heavenly. In this moment, Finn’s lyrics retreat to the respectfully succinct. "Heaven is whenever, we can get together, sit down on your floor, and listen to your records" he croons above a wholly evocative echo. On the disarming opener, ‘The Sweet Part of the City’, Finn unleashes a detailed tale of Bohemian city life, be it Brooklyn or otherwise; a love story amid a swathe of sushi bars. This is a lovely modernistic twist which serves him well. He may not rival Tom Waits for downbeat imagery but, in no moment on this album, do you sense anything other than non-fic lyrical content.

It is also charming throughout, whereas ‘Stay Positive’, for all its flickering brilliance, also contained sub-standard moments.

Perhaps the trick lies in the band continual physical movement. Touring for years with few breaks, the songs are written on the hop, taking on board no small amount of angst and tragedy along the way. The struggle is the bomb and that, I guess, is something we can all relate too. People fall ill, people die and have arguments within the spread of Finn’s lyricism and yet, as the title strongly suggests, this is a celebration of the mundane. It could be a glimpse of sunshine on a Sunday afternoon, or a stolen cuddle or a reckless gig in a tiny bar.

Of course, there remain danger signs. The lovely thick syrup production here serves these songs well, moving from acoustic picking to powerful orchestration… but such slickness is hardly the rock on which this band has been formed. The edge needs to be retained and yet I can’t see… I really can’t… how this band can move anywhere other than an increasingly comfortable maturity.

That’s the precarious nature of their situation. However, there is hope. "Father I have sinned and I want to do it all over again" sings Finn, echoing a younger Springsteen. Well, I do hope so. Truth is, we already have five superior, uplifting Hold Steady albums. More quality than we could ever reasonably expect and yet, despite this, despite a bulging legacy of songs that are slowly eclipsing those heady influences, they still play reasonably small venues. Selfish of me, I know, but that’s where I want them to stay. The struggle still feels wonderful.

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