By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
The Hold Steady: Keeping riff-driven rock songs relevant since 2004.
To be fair, I’ve only heard one album — 2010’s Heaven is Whenever — but the Hold Steady certainly make a strong case for deserving that aforementioned title on the merits of this most recent release alone. More to the point, the question foremost on my mind as I ran through my second, third, and on through to my tenth listens to this album (in a four day span) was: how has this band managed to release four albums that I’ve never heard of?
Oh, right… Rock music doesn’t “sell” like it used to. I forgot for a moment there.
Honestly, I was nonplussed for much of my first listen. I had put the album on low while talking in the car; what I did hear sounded like the middle-of-the-road derivative drivel that passes for contemporary popular “rock” music.
I’m not name-dropping here, but you can imagine…
When I finally had the mind to crank the volume up, I very clearly heard a band that is not attempting to be something they aren’t. Sure, there are inflections of the Counting Crows and Tom Petty as well as Weezer and the occasional hats-off nod to hip hop dispersed throughout this record, yet although I feel like I should be able to draw more concrete observations in the vein of “The Hold Steady sound like _______”…
Well, I haven’t gotten that far.
And why would I want to? Reviewers — myself included — have a way of breaking down albums and songs to such a degree that, once dismantled, they simply can’t be put back together and enjoyed.
The defining feature of Heaven is Whenever is the tension between the obvious and the subtle, the directly stated and the implied. Namely, these are not the simple, superficial songs that they may appear to be to the casual listener. And it is truly refreshing to read through the lyrics booklet without losing respect for the music.
Kiran Soderqvist of Sputnik Music nails their tone when he writes that frontman Craig Finn “has a way with words and much of their music hints at something much more calculated than bar-light jamming.”
On this record, the lyrics accomplish much of the hinting.
If you’re listening for a Bob Dylan, or even a Jakob Dylan, then you’re liable to be disappointed. But if you’re drawn to the sorts of lines and phrases that will leave you imagining what they might refer to (“There was that whole weird thing with the horses” or “There were a couple pretty crass propositions…” in “The Weekenders”), if you like your allusions served often and served bluntly (“Don’t it suck about the succubi?” in “A Slight Discomfort”), if you’re fond of your metaphors (“I’m from a place with lots of lakes. But sometimes they get soft in the center. And the center is a dangerous place…” in “Soft in the Center”), and if you fancy wordplay (“Jock Jills go for jumping Jacks” in “Our Whole Lives”), then you won’t be disappointed.
Topically, the album is thought-provoking if you’ll let it be, though it’s vague enough — and paced quickly enough — that you’ll never have to think to enjoy these songs.
Upon further consideration, there is more beneath the surface. To begin with, heaven may be the most oft-used word on this record, employed as a metaphor for a beautiful, peaceful relationship in “We Can Get Together,” the lyrics of which provided the album title. Earlier, heaven is what the situation in “The Smidge” feels like, and “Heaven Tonight” makes leaving a party feel “really right” in “Rock Problems.” Later, heaven is the topic for discussions about “hypotheticals” in the superb lead-off single “Hurricane J.”
Not surprisingly, religious iconology oozes forth throughout, as Finn sings about praying on numerous occasions, saints are mentioned repeatedly (specifically, as well as figuratively, as in “Hurricane J” when Jesse’s parents “…didn’t name her for a saint. They named her for a storm”), the Catholic confessional is alluded to in “Our Whole Lives,” and the 1980 Jim Carroll band record Catholic Boy is referenced. Clearly, Heaven is Whenever turns to this thematic underpinning, both seriously and dismissively, and whether intended or not, the album provides a wealth of provocative hooks for the listener.
This is not to say that the Hold Steady’s latest release is a spiritual record or some sort of religious statement. There are many other similarly provocative statements here, such as the advice in “Soft in the Center” that “You can’t get every girl. You’ll get the ones you love the best. You won’t get every girl. You’ll love the ones you get the best. Kid, you can’t kiss every girl…” Every young man confronts this conflict in his programming, that eternal struggle between man as the primitive hunter/gatherer driven by instinct/attraction, and man as the productive member of a society that values monogamy and stability.
There are lighter connections to be made here, as well. For instance, speaking as a life-long dork and sometimes-nerd, I had a visceral reaction to the refrain in “Our Whole Lives” that finds Finn proclaiming, “We’re good guys, but we can’t be good every night. We’re good guys, but we can’t be good our whole lives.”
If you really listen, Heaven is Whenever has much to offer up both lyrically and musically. If you’d rather not, then you’ll still find this album a fun rock record.
And, as a result, I’m left wondering why I didn’t start listening four albums ago.