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:
It’s a long way from Cedar Riverside to Cedar Sinai
Three times St. Paul to Cheyenne
And it’s a long way from Sacramento too
We were bored so we started a band
We like to play for you
We like to pray for you
(“The Sweet Side of the City)
to success and disillusionment:
Back home we were listening to “Catholic Boy”
And I got hung up on the people that died
I didn’t even want to go out ’cause I was way too fried
She said I just can’t sympathize
With your rock and roll problems
Isn’t this what we wanted?
Some major rock and roll problems
To what keeps them going:
We’re not afraid, we have our faith
We’ve seen scattered action and we’ve mostly come out unscathed
We’ll be alright, we’ll get through the night
Our struggle still feels wonderful most days, most days
The album’s centerpiece is “We Can Get Together,” a simultaneously heartfelt and nerdy love song to music itself, complete with references to Pavement, Hüsker Dü, Meat Loaf, and Utopia, among others. The album takes its name from the lines “Heaven is whenever we can get together/Sit down on your floor and listen to your records,” and damned if I don’t get a little tear in the corner of the eye thinking about all the people I’ve shared music with over the years…you know who you are, I’m not pulling out my little Oscar list to thank you, but thanks anyway.