The Hold Steady

Thrashing Thru The Passion

Thrashing Thru The Passion may not stand up to their very best work, but The Hold Steady's new collection is still full of potency, finds CJ Thorpe-Tracey

I fell for The Hold Steady early and hard; it was like your office IT support started jamming out vintage, shivved-edge rock’n’roll; bolting Hüsker Dü fuzz to Springsteen’s early storytelling. It was heady shit.

Craig Finn’s declamatory, unabashed un-singing of grimily wry tales; full of sex and concrete and drugs and proper street rats, was offset by the gorgeous chiming piano melodies and moustachioed swirl of vaudevillian Franz Nicolay, who came on like three members of the E Street Band all at once. They were literate and arch but still smelled of engine oil. A yank counterpoint to what Art Brut did to British indie templates, around the same time. Hetero like Withnail.

Around 2010 they parted company with Nicolay and my interest collapsed. Without his arpeggios and boho tease in the heart of the rush, there wasn’t enough left to counterpoint Finn’s tales. At the same time, Finn was trying too hard: learning to sing properly. Becoming a rock star. Guitar solos. Hints of Americana, even. They started to sound like other bands.

Full disclosure: a year or two after that break, Nicolay and I toured together, so call me swayed by loyalty if you want. But after that, I only reconnected with his old band to check out Finn’s occasional solo records (there are four of these, with some great moments).

Then in 2016, Nicolay rejoins. They keep second guitarist Steve Selvedge, who was added in the interim, so now The Hold Steady exists as a ‘definitive’ sextet lineup, with a restructured touring regime, dropping the occasional single to sustain interest.

I don’t know much about those shenanigans. But here’s Thrashing Thru The Passion. On paper their seventh record but in reality a collection of those post-2016 singles, plus additional tracks. It’s clearly part of the support infrastructure for a live machine, rather than a grand flourish in and of itself. Lyrics roll that out as manifesto:

It doesn’t have to be pure. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just sorta has to be worth it.

The stories, the addled street preacher, the joie de vivre, they’re more potent than for a long time. The playing is better too. And yes, Finn is a singer now but he’s still instinctive enough to pile into his good old declamatory mosh. For stretches, this truly feels like bopping to the classics. The superb central tentpole pairing of ‘Blackout Sam’ and ‘Entitlement Crew’ especially.

If something’s missing, it’s in production that can’t hide ageing spread; over separate sessions, with separate moods. None of it parlays a singular vision. It’s not meant to. So although the songs often hit the spot (it’s a fuck ton more enjoyable than Teeth Dreams) it’s not a follow-up to Stay Positive and I still want them to go away and do that.

Honestly, The Hold Steady are too flawed and punchy – in the sexiest ways – to become a heritage band. Yeah, we’ll bend reality to let them stand where they fancy. And if that involves waiting longer for something as scratchily monumental as those early masterpieces, I’m down. Maybe they won’t get there. But Thrashing Thru The Passion says they still can.

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