Initially, I disliked them immensely.
I couldn’t get into Finn’s spit-spoken delivery. He floats a heavy assault over the music, like he’s staring it down in the middle of the rink just before the fight. “Unlike many singers,” he said at the Pencil Factory by way of explanation, “I rarely carry a syllable out. There’s not a lot of Ooh! Ooh! or [Craig Finn’s imitation of a singer carrying a syllable out]. It’s more like Da-da-da-da-da.”
Neither did I like their guitar sound. I thought it was too much like the cock-rock bullshit that had flogged me continuously at parties and on the radio during my marooned and hapless high-school years in the Chicago suburbs. I had left all that stuff behind me when the indie scene exploded and opened up a new musical awareness: the Pixies, Fugazi, Leonard Cohen.
All music lovers know the phenomenon of returning to an album after it initially appears to offer no pleasure. Why do we do this? Sometimes we might just grow bored with what’s familiar, or a friend might prod us to give it another try. Maybe we just need to justify having spent the money. But more than boredom or prodding or money, I’d like to think it’s the music itself, some wisp or hint of excellence emerging even at the time of dismissal, and your own steady ear ready for it. What was that hint, that hunch, that saving grace with Separation Sunday, the second release from the Hold Steady and the one I first fell for?
My point of entry into the Hold Steady was “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” A driving rhythm, a very big hook, some smart and unexpected lyrics. Or maybe point of entry is not the right term for it. Point of breaking and entering might be better. Have you ever felt like an album is an imposing structure that can’t be penetrated? And if you do get inside, there’s nothing but earsplitting noise?
I put “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on a mix, where it was safely quarantined. The more it came around, the more I started liking it. I wondered, What was wrong with me that I didn’t like this song right away? Maybe I needed to go back and listen to the entire album.
“Seventeen to 23 is a fun age, because you’re smart enough to make things happen,” Finn says, “but dumb enough to make the wrong decisions.”
When I did so, I realized that, like many first impressions, the one I had of the Hold Steady was all wrong. They weren’t cock-rock bullshit. The more I listened, the more I began to see how they borrowed from the best of the formative and marginal indie bands that offered a genuine alternative to cock-rock bullshit.
But if it ended there, they would simply be another indie-rock band. What’s most brave and exciting about the Hold Steady is that they have the temerity to borrow from arena rock. The result is something quite new. A welcome trend in indie music involves bands incorporating non-Western tropes into contemporary American songs. The Hold Steady appropriate an equally diverse range of sounds. Those sounds just happen to have all been born and raised in America.
With the 2006 release of Boys and Girls in America, Finn streamlined his lyrics and somewhat softened his delivery. Lightening the lyrical overload of Separation Sunday helped to highlight his piquant one-liners, while his greater tunefulness made it easier to catch the drift of his narratives. Still, as he did with songs from that earlier album, Finn tended to begin each story in the middle, conclude nothing definitively, and only hint with the knowing phrase at how it all got started in the first place. Consider the economy of an addiction tale from “Hot Soft Light”: “It started recreational, it ended kinda medical / It came on hot and soft and then it tightened up its tentacles.” With a crisp production and rich, sophisticated musical arrangements, Boys and Girls in America is as tight and ambitious a collection of rock-and-roll songs as has ever been released, lyrically connected by theme and sonically as catchy as it is edgy.
The prodigal-son, lapsed-Catholic thing on Separation Sunday—people could deal with that if they wanted to or not, depending on how they were raised,” said Finn, when I asked him about the band’s trajectory over the course of their four albums. “If it came down to one word, Boys and Girls in America is about love, and Stay Positive is about aging—which are two concepts that everyone has to deal with. So they’re probably more universal records.”
Which is not to say the songs on Stay Positive, their latest release, are Finn’s personal confessions. The escapades are still there. So are the drunken nights, the petty crimes, the holy visions. Finn’s characters continue to fight personal demons with the help of his clever turns of phrase. But there is a sense in which this might be a more personal album than its predecessors—or, rather, that Finn’s narrators are starting to resemble him in age and circumstance more than ever before. The undercurrent of desperation that gave heft to Boys and Girls in America has been replaced by hope and nostalgia, while religious search has yielded ground to the saving grace of music and the scene (“Our psalms are sing-along songs … We are our only saviors”).