This album is another in a series of The Hold Steady albums exploring a drug-fueled, violence-prone dystopia with human touches that keep everything just barely this side of despair. The music is solid bar-room rock with plenty of guitars and drums. The thoughtful lyrics are snarled with a mix of anger. contempt and wise-ass swagger.
This is what The Hold Steady does. Real aficionados can discuss major differences among the albums put out by Craig Finn and the band, but the essence of The Hold Steady – bar rock with evocative lyrics spat out with Finn’s distinctive style – doesn’t change a bit. Unless you’re a real student of the group, this is more of the same, but you will like it because it is a truly excellent “same”.
My reference to students of the group is worth emphasizing. The Hold Steady has, over its 6 albums, created a fictional world with recurring characters, plot lines, and references. The annotations over at Rock Genius can help you figure out some of the references, if you’re interested. If you want to dive deep, you can plunge into the 785 entries at The Hold Steady Wiki.
The good news is that you don’t have to be interested in probing the references to enjoy the music. Even if you don’t know who Charlemagne is or that the Cityscape Skins are an imaginary Minneapolis gang, you will catch clever lyrics and solid rock music when you play this CD. Everyone knows the people described in “I Hope this Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”:
They never care if it’s true
As long as they got something to prove
And they always got something to prove
And you can probably recall that youthful feeling of being slightly out of control like this girl from “Spinners” at some point in our lives:
Once you’re out there every things possible
Even the bad nights aren’t that terrible
Loosen your grip it feels so incredible
Let the city live your life for you tonight
And here’s some good advice for a young woman whose vulnerability after a heartbreak makes her an easy target for the next insincere relationship:
I’m sure they’ll come up in the parking lots and at parties
You know you don’t have to accept
Collecting boyfriends isn’t such a healthy hobby
I’m sorry, but there’s other words than yes
Craig Finn is a sharp-eyed observer of human behavior, and his tales of life on the edge of drugs and violence are approachable because they are so human. It’s not a freak show – it’s more of a voyeuristic look at what humans who are just like you and me might do in harsher circumstances. It’s relevant and relatable, unlike some other albums that require you to learn a whole iconography to make heads or tails of the work.
Next up: Morning Phase, by Beck.