The Hold Steady are a strange case – on the one hand, they are true rock’n'roll classicists, devotees of the vibrating string and skin. On the other hand, there is something distinctly 21st century about their tales of dissipated, disaffected, drug-addled youth.
I thought they had peaked back in 2005 with Separation Sunday. That album really snuck up on me with its combination of crunchy riffs and the uniquely nasal instrument of vocalist Craig Finn, the love child of Bruce Springsteen and Randy Newman. Not to mention the lyrics, highly literate and thoughtful without beating you over the head about it. Separation Sunday was a concept album about a lost generation struggling with faith and looking for redemption, and as awful as that sounds, it worked. Neither of the Hold Steady’s albums since then – Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive – grabbed me much, so my expectations for this one were low.
Surprise, surprise – right from the opening notes of slide guitar, Heaven Is Whenever announces itself as a new kind of Hold Steady album. Not a complete departure, just an evolution, a little more sophisticated without sacrificing the gut-level oomph that they do so well. It moves smoothly from song to song without sacrificing momentum, and though there’s no obvious narrative through-line like there was in Separation Sunday, it seems as much as anything to be about…well, the Hold Steady. From how they got started: