The Hold Steady

Stay Positive

At their debut UK show a few years ago as an entirely unknown support act the Hold Steady garnered the biggest cheer from a decently full house when Craig Finn announced the song ‘Everyone’s a Critic and Most People Are DJs’. Clearly the man knew his audience, even when he didn’t have one. Four years later and his band have been acclaimed beyond his wildest imaginings, the post-rock rock outfit that actually rocks. To paraphrase an old cliché, hardly anyone heard the Velvets, but they all formed a band. But everyone who heard a Hold Steady record blogged about it, really hard. (Except me. I don’t blog.).

Their appeal was unmistakable. What started out as barroom rock with some acute narrative on top has become an actual musical trademark. Smarter critics than me (and they are legion) have pointed out that Bruce Springsteen’s most romantic songs effectively recreate a world already seen and experienced by his audience as entertainment, his most anthemic moments working as little movies. But Finn’s characters really are the audience he performs to, men (and they’re usually men) who might live in, ooh, Brooklyn (or its local equivalent), faintly dissatisfied with their lives as middle-aged realities intervene.

Their breakthrough with Boys and Girls In America managed the trick of making the local universal, even as their sound shifted towards the mainstream. It’s a hard one to pull, and makes their unlikely late success all the more deserved. And even Bruce has raised the stakes. Last year’s Magic was the raucous sound of large men in a small room, looking back on their own youth. If The Hold Steady really are his heirs, can they keep up?

In short, yes and more. This is the best, most satisfying Hold Steady album so far. This time their own Minneapolis roots are showing. ‘Constructed Summer’ owes more to (pre-disco) Bob Mould than anything they’ve so far released (and probably nods to Husker Du’s mini-epic ‘Celebrated Summer’), hailing ‘St Joe Strummer’ as a platonic ideal of decency even as Franz Nicolay bashes the piano like it’s therapy.

‘Lord I’m Discouraged’ is, like all God-evoking tunes, laborious and heartfelt, yet the ludicrous guitar solo keeps it earthbound. The Catholic guilt of ‘Both Crosses’ is supremely gloomy and instantly familiar. It’s all good. The witty, off-hand ‘Sequestered In Memphis’ could actually be described as, er, Stonesy. ‘One for the Cutters’ sounds like two songs and a novel fighting it out. Even the anthemic title track recognises that Finn (or perhaps his fictional alter ego) can’t remain universally acclaimed forever (he may in fact be underestimating the true nature of celebrity, even internet celebrity). ‘Slapped Actress’ has a great riff, a great title and a great lyric, one that recognises the Hold Steady’s own iconography as it refers to previous works. Suddenly it all becomes obvious. Finn, a keen student of Catholicism, has managed to create his own quasi- religious movement. It’s all here- the texts, the hymns, even the prophets were just waiting to be recognised (‘Broooooooce!’). No wonder their audiences are so contemplative.

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