The five-piece rock band is built around the interplay of singer Craig Finn's highly distinctive songwriting and sing-speak vocals (which have evolved from rapper-meets-stand-up comedian rants to something approaching actual singing over the years) and longtime bandmate Tad Kubler's guitar work, a body of riffage whose increasing wit and inventiveness is approaching Jack White territory. (Finn and Kubler first honed their craft in the '90s cult band Lifter Puller.)
Over the course of four albums in six years, the Hold Steady have become one of rock's most lauded bands, with a rapidly expanding fan base to go with the media attention. Reviews citing the band's witty, boozy, bar anthems are legion, but what most miss is Finn's rare gift for uniting sarcastic insight with palpable empathy.
You can hear this trick repeatedly on Stay Positive's story songs. On the lead single, "Sequestered in Memphis" — Finn has a long history of giving lyrical nods to favored towns; he also recruits Lucero frontman Ben Nichols for back-up vocal duty on the record — Finn sketches a volatile hook-up in quick strokes: "In the bar light, she looked alright/In daylight, she looked desperate/That's okay, I was desperate too."
On the story song "One for the Cutters," a tale of a liberal-arts-school girl seeking kicks off campus, humor and empathy intermingle, coming to a head on the final verse: "Dad, do you know where your kids are?/Sniffing at crystal in cute little cars/Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars ... Her friends all seemed nice/She was getting good grades/But when she came home for Christmas/She just seemed distant and different."
"Joke About Jamaica" is the kind of merciless, detail-rich character sketch Finn has been specializing in since the Lifter Puller days, the first verse capturing a young "hot child in the city in the middle of the prairie" in her music-scene-queen heyday, only to fast-forward to a sadder barfly future: "The boys are getting younger and the bands are getting louder/The new girls are coming up like some white unopened flowers/She's pretty sure that's where their power is." But in the final verse, Finn pulls himself and his band into the story as well: "We were wasps with new wings/Now we're bugs in the jar ... the boys in the band/They know they'll never be stars."
The Hold Steady gets compared to Bruce Springsteen constantly, a comparison the band (Finn is a noted Springsteen fanatic) encourages with its verbose character sketches and mix of classic rock guitar and piano. But rock-revivalist-era Springsteen rarely married such merciless insight to his true believer's love.
This tendency in Finn's songwriting undercuts his anthems — drains them of the beautiful-loser romanticism more common to classic rock. But it ultimately deepens the impact of the songs, because the perspective is more grounded and more real. This band sees its characters' flaws and limitations clearly and loves these characters all the more.
Essentially, the Hold Steady is Springsteen for people raised on "all-ages hardcore matinee shows." It's classic-rock grandeur filtered through the modesty and ethical sense of '80s punk and hardcore, a dynamic literalized on Stay Positive more than ever, from Finn's citation of the Minutemen's "History Lesson Pt. II" in the press notes to the amazing opening anthem "Constructive Summer," which spins some Springsteenian imagery off a title almost surely inspired by Hüsker Dü's "Celebrated Summer" before splitting the difference with a song-ending dedication to the Clash's Joe Strummer.
"Constructive Summer" is perhaps the ultimate Hold Steady song not just for how purely it combines the band's classic rock and punk/hardcore influences in terms of sound and lyrical references, but for the way it undercuts it classic-rock reach with a sardonic regular-guy perspective. "Summer grant us all the power to drink on top of watertowers," Finn cracks, asking for the song to be his "annual reminder that we could all be something bigger." (The "annual reminder" line itself is an acknowledgement of limitation and potential failure.)
Stay Positive is structurally very similar to the band's preceding breakthrough, Boys and Girls in America. Both albums open with untoppable anthems/thesis statements ("Stuck Between Stations" and "Constructive Summer," respectively). Both end on more subdued songs that sum up the mood and message of the record. And in between there are plenty of doublings. But in this case, more of the same doesn't lead to diminishing returns. If anything, Stay Positive might be even better. — Chris Herrington
The Hold Steady play Proud Larry's in Oxford, Friday, August 8th.