If you know anything about the Hold Steady, the indie-rock hybrid with one foot in Minneapolis and one in Brooklyn, you know that many of their songs are about drugs and alcohol and partying as those things might be experienced by a practicing Catholic. And so you might expect me, when I show up at the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, to find the front man, Craig Finn, finishing off sixteen shots of turpentine in nostalgic celebration of his favorite birthday, and Tad Kubler, the lead guitarist, doing lines in the bathroom. You might expect to find pimps beating up black-eyed whores while the whores dance and recite half-remembered lines from Revelation and pregnant chicks bullying me into smoking cigarettes with them.
In fact, I do find Kubler at the bar, but he’s drinking a mild greyhound. It isn’t quite the traditional cocktail hour, so he seems apologetic. “A lot has been made of our lifestyle,” he says preemptively, “but it’s blown a little out of proportion.”
Finn comes straight from the airport wearing a new Twins cap and looking a bit defeated by an encounter with modern American air travel.
“How was your flight?” Kubler asks him.
Finn shrugs. “Fine once it left. Only an hour late.”
Don’t confuse these guys with their characters.
Finn and Kubler are consummate professionals who have built their reputations on dissipation and debauchery. They started the Hold Steady to play the kind of rock and roll they loved at a time when a very different sound dominated the scene. Their music is loud, raucous, and fun, but the stories they tell ache of desperation and loneliness. Their broad anthems are about small-bit players. And their sound, which is hard to pin down, confused by some for indie punk and by others for arena rock, obscures the universality of their appeal.
The Hold Steady’s debut album, Almost Killed Me, was released in 2004. The five-piece band was formed in Brooklyn after Finn and Kubler folded up Lifter Puller, their successful Minneapolis group, and left for the East Coast. At that time, moody, atmospheric rock bands like Interpol and the Strokes dominated the indie scene. Finn and Kubler wanted to play the kind of music they’d grown up on, though that sound was out of vogue. “We started the band to have fun and play the music we loved to listen to,” said Kubler. Their intention was to noodle some strings and drink a few beers.
Instead, they found success. They released albums, toured, and received massive critical praise from the old guard (Rolling Stone) and the new (Pitchfork). They capture the experiences of a restless and drug-fueled youth culture, and that makes their songs relatable to many of their fans. They’ve gained a loyal following.
“Boys and Girls in America and records previous dealt with characters who were young adults,” Finn told me, referring to their third release. “Seventeen to 23, say. Which is a fun age, because you’re smart enough to make things happen but dumb enough to make the wrong decisions around every corner.”
But the Hold Steady aren’t U2, and they aren’t Coldplay. Finn’s lyrics don’t feature the kind of generalities that make for a Top 40 hit. His stories are set in a specific time and place, and concern conflicts with which the majority of Hold Steady fans will never have firsthand experience. In “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” one of Finn’s recurring characters, a lost soul named Holly, crashes into a church on Easter Sunday—“limping left on broken heels”—to declare to the congregation that while druggy parties might have killed her, visions and saints have resurrected her. It’s a strange tale.
Yet like the best storytellers, Finn makes the experience accessible. He draws his characters vividly and sympathetically, so that even if you can’t locate yourself in the song, you always understand the emotion involved, the struggle and the pathos. It only takes compassion to extrapolate a kinship with some very bedraggled characters. His songs never fail to resonate despite their lovely idiosyncrasy, and his scope is remarkable for how rooted his stories are in the particular.
Those stories play out within the guitar-centric sound of a rock band in the classic mode. The band has referenced several influences in songs—Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin. Yet a classic-rock pigeonhole doesn’t take into account their incorporation of the scrappy indie-trailblazer sound (bands like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü), nor the raplike aspects of Finn’s songwriting style and delivery. Despite guitar licks and solos straight off an 8-track, there is a gloriously sloppy punk ethos that courses through the best of their songs. They manage to make the populist instinct of wailing on a guitar okay for the indie crowd, while infusing it with the genuine indie impulses that stem from hard-core punk and rap. The result is a big anthemic treat.
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”).
For anyone new to the Hold Steady looking for a point of breaking and entering on Stay Positive, start with “Sequestered in Memphis.” It’s as immediate and infectious as “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.” The same goes for the title track. Musically, two songs are real standouts: a guitar solo provides a plaintive wail on behalf of the rocky couple on “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” while the harpsichord becomes the voice of the protagonist on “One for the Cutters.” The instruments aid and abet Finn as he articulates the inner turmoil of his characters’ lives.
“Stay Positive is about taking your youthful ideals and putting them up against real-life problems and hopefully not losing all of those ideals but also becoming an adult,” said Finn. “This record is about the attempt to age gracefully.”
For the third year in a row, the decommissioned pool at McCarren Park is hosting a series of summer concerts that brings out the hipsters and parents from Brooklyn and the surrounding boroughs. The urban limbo of the pool would make a good prison yard, but when there are shows, it swells with people in various degrees of undress enjoying the Slip ’n’ Slide, playing dodgeball, lounging on blankets, and, when the music starts, jumping up and crowding the stage. There are a lot of flip-flops and advanced fashions, a lot of tats and hats.
On the day the Hold Steady were scheduled to play McCarren, thunderstorms pummeled the pavement throughout the afternoon. Their set started around six, and the band—which includes Franz Nicolay on keyboards, Bobby Drake on drums, and Galen Polivka on bass—played hard and loud for about an hour and a half. Finn was as restless physically as his pen is lyrically. He looked to be chasing down the mike at every turn, as if it were a frisky cartoon character constantly eluding his grasp. The rest of the band played with equal intensity, and several times, with an eerie and unchoreographed spontaneity, everyone onstage broke into … not momentary grins but boyish and lasting smiles.
The weather had cleared by then, and I looked behind me at a packed and undulating crowd. They, too, were smiling. The new songs from Stay Positive concern more addiction, forsaken dreams, jilted lovers, desperation, and nostalgia—but Finn and the band kept the energy so high, had so much infectious fun, that nearly everyone pumped their fists in the air at one point or another, everyone sang along, and all those distinctions between indie and arena, rock and punk, lick and groove, high and hangover, authenticity and affectation, hipster and parent, boy and girl, they no longer mattered.