The Hold Steady have been playing music for just over 10 years now. They started out in 2004 with Almost Killed Me and since then, they’ve released another five full-length albums, including this year’s Teeth Dreams. Popular consensus seems to be that their last two albums, Teeth Dreams and 2010’s Heaven is Whenever, were a significant departure from the standard of quality the band had established over its first four albums, which, in retrospect, now appear to have been part of a classic, near-flawless 5-year run.
Figuring out “what happened” to the Hold Steady isn’t easy and opinions will vary. Surely, some people may even enjoy the last two albums as much, or even more, than their earlier work. The music, to a casual listener, likely doesn’t sound terribly different. The Hold Steady have always played guitar-driven music with a classic rock bent, and with Craig Finn’s easily identifiable half-talking/half-singing delivery about weary women and drug-fueled music scenes, you couldn’t confuse the band for any other in the world. That’s all still there. But something definitely changed after those first four albums.
The easiest change one could identify would be the appearance, and then departure, of keyboardist, Franz Nicolay. Nicolay came on board after Almost Killed Me and was credited as co-songwriter of two songs on 2005’s Separation Sunday. His contributions were immediately noticeable. Whereas Almost Killed Me was mostly a “guitar album,” nearly every song on Separation Sunday featured at least some element of piano, organ, or synths. Nicolay continued to receive songwriting credit for many of the songs on Boys and Girls in America (often considered the band’s “best” album) and Stay Positive, and his musical embellishments became an inextricable part of what came to be recognized as “the Hold Steady sound.”
Nicolay left the Hold Steady in 2010. The two albums the band has released since that time are largely felt to be inferior to their earlier work. This is not likely a coincidence. On Heaven is Whenever, the band seemed to struggled to fill in the holes where Nicolay used to exist and the album ended up sounding like on oddly folksy precursor to Finn’s 2012 solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes.
Most recently, the band seems to have tried to solve this problem by looking to their first album for inspiration. The harder guitar-driven riffs on Teeth Dreams actually sound more like Almost Killed Me than anything the band has released in the past ten years. Teeth Dreams lacks the raw edge of that first album though and ends up sounding a bit like “the Hold Steady trying to sound like itself” in a way that’s awkward and unsuccessful more often than not.
Though the band has clearly missed Nicolay’s influence, the quality of the music also seemed to decline at the same time that the band switched away from producer, John Agnello. Agnello (perhaps known, most recently, for his fantastic work with Kurt Vile) produced both Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive and it would be hard to argue that the band ever sounded as good as they did on those two albums. Nicolay and Agnello elevated the Hold Steady from a fun bar band with a genius lyricist to a band that sounded vital to American music.
Despite these changes, the rest of the band has remained largely in tact over the past ten years. Craig Finn and lead guitarist, Tad Kubler, started the band in 2004 with bassist Galen Polivka and drummer, Bobby Drake, has been with the band since Separation Sunday. The Nicolay/Agnello departure clearly had an effect on the band’s sound, but the backbone of the Hold Steady has always been the songwriting tandem of Finn and Kubler. If we’re going to evaluate how and why the Hold Steady’s sound has changed over the years, that’s ultimately where we need to look.
While Kubler’s classic rock lead guitar riffs have consistently been an integral part of the band’s oeuvre, it’s no secret that Kubler came to a reckoning with a drug addiction during the recording and release of Heaven is Whenever. Kubler has actually gone on to say “I don’t really like that record” (a sentiment some of us might share), and he’s since, reluctantly, gone “sober” for Teeth Dreams. It’s hard to say for sure the extent to which Kubler’s struggles with addiction and sobriety have affected his songwriting, but again, this likely isn’t a coincidence.
Then there’s Craig Finn.
If there’s one thing that makes the Hold Steady the Hold Steady, it’s Finn. His lyrics and voice are unmistakable and it was his infusion of life and energy and realism into those first four albums that made them so inimitable. Finn is still an excellent lyricist, one of the best story-teller’s in music over the past ten years, but there’s a certain, hard to place aspect to his narration that has fallen off, ever so slightly, on their last two albums, and it turns out, it makes a world of difference.
Finn used to feel like an authority. Even when he was sometimes, self-consciously, an unreliable narrator, admitting that his own memories might be a bit fuzzy here and there, you believed every word that he said as if it were scripture. (A comparison that Finn, himself, didn’t shy away from making on Stay Positive.) The stories he told, even when they were clearly insignificant in the greater contexts of the world, felt important and relevant and generally applicable and specific all at the same time. Beyond this, he tied their entire first four albums together, thematically, with reoccurring characters, repeated lines, mantras, and deft self-awareness about the fact that he is in a band, you are listening to him, and there is a relationship that occurs as a result of that. In short, the work that he did from Almost Killed Me to Stay Positive was brilliant and unparalleled.
It can feel a bit unfair then to judge Finn too harshly for the content of his latest albums. He might have set the standard impossibly high to continue at that level and, as stated before, he is still an excellent lyricist and storyteller. There’s no doubt, however, that there’s something missing. The authority doesn’t seem as unshakeable, almost as if Finn is “further away” from his subject matter. Where he once seemed like an embedded reporter in the lives of the characters in his songs, he now comes off more like a guy that heard a story about these other guys and decided to write a song about it. The information somehow seems second-hand and that’s probably because it’s often less specific. On Teeth Dreams, Finn tends to talk more in generalities and when he does delve into specifics they often don’t seem quite “right.” It might be a subtle nuance, but it’s the difference between accepting everything a narrator says and saying, “of course,” and finding yourself constantly asking, “is that really how it happened?”
Regardless of where the Hold Steady go from here, their accomplishments over the past ten years are undeniable. In anticipation of their upcoming show at the Town Ballroom on Tuesday, April 8, I’ve listed below what I believe to be the 12 best songs from the Hold Steady’s first four albums, which hopefully they’ll still be working into their live repertoire along with the most recent songs from Teeth Dreams.
Almost Killed Me (2004)
1) “Positive Jam”
The first song from their first album, it’s unlikely that any band has ever felt the need to make such a distinct “opening statement” about the very reason for their existence (“I got bored when I didn’t have a band, so I started a band, man,”) as well as the meaning behind the band’s name (all the “sniffling indie kids” need to “hold steady”). Finn gives a brief lesson in American history before announcing that their new band is going to start it off with a “positive jam” and proceed to “hold steady.” This was not an empty promise.
2) “The Swish”
This might be the best example of the “early Hold Steady sound” that you’ll find on most of Almost Killed Me. There are barely verses and choruses as much as there are several different guitar riffs and Finn’s yell-to-sing ratio is around 90/10. It’s also exemplary of Finn’s earlier lyrical content where he focused heavily on what people “looked like” (Rick Danko, Elizabeth Shue, Tuscan Raiders, etc.), where they were (Newport News, Shaker Heights), and the creative ways in which they were partying (“ginger-and-jack and four or five feminax.”)
3) “Hot Fries”
This is a relatively rare b-side from the Almost Killed Me sessions that seems to only be available on the extended Australian version of the album. It’s a wonderfully dark song though and it indicates the direction the Hold Steady would be heading on their next album. Finn generally seems to have a reputation for unfailing earnest lyrics but I find they’re often more sardonic and self-aware than they may seem. Look no further than: “all your favorite books, they wouldn’t seem so well-written if you were just a little bit more well-read, Jack Kerouac is dead, he drank himself to death,” which throws an interesting light on Finn’s well-known Kerouac reference at the beginning of Boys and Girls in America.
Separation Sunday (2005)
4) “Cattle and the Creeping Things”
Franz Nicolay’s contributions to the band were immediately recognizable by the second song on Separation Sunday. Nicolay’s piano practically sounds like a “creeping thing,” dancing around the edges of Kubler’s guitar riffs, and the various synths give the song an almost alien feel that opens it up in ways that a more traditional arrangement simply wouldn’t have been able to accomplish. The last line in which Finn says, “Mackenzie Phillips doesn’t live here anymore,” as the band takes off and doesn’t even wait for him to finish the line, is one of my favorite moments in any Hold Steady song.
5) “Don’t Let Me Explode”
Separation Sunday is a concept album, steeped in religious imagery, largely following the actions of a girl named “Holly,” where music, drugs, and religion are often indistinguishable from one another. “Don’t Let Me Explode” is a reference to Saint Barbara (who, you might remember from my Vampire Weekend article, is the patron saint of explosives.) The faux-50’s waltz (that does “explode” mid-dance) contains one of my favorite Hold Steady lyrics: “we didn’t go to Dallas, yeah cause Jackie Onassis said, that it ain’t safe for Catholics yet.”
6) “How a Resurrection Really Feels”
The last song on the Hold Steady’s second album is Holly’s “resurrection song” where she “crashes into the Easter mass, with her hair done up in broken glass.” It’s hard to believe that the theme song for this girl, who has clearly been through the ringer, is able to sound so victorious, but the band completely sells it. It’s a wonderfully fun song and exemplary of the Hold Steady’s positivity in seeing that not only are the most down-trodden capable of a come-back, but their experiences often make for the most intriguing subject matter.
Boys and Girls in America (2006)
7) “Stuck Between Stations”
This is the first song on the band’s first John Agnello-produced record and the opening salvo of what is (at least critically) often considered the Hold Steady’s best album, Boys and Girls in America. Nicolay’s epic piano lines not only started earning the band Springsteen comparisons but his borderline-falsetto background vocals added yet another layer to the band’s more dramatic sound. Finn is at his absolute best here, using Kerouac’s Sal Paradise to call into question the happiness of all the “boys and girls in America,” and then switching to an account of John Berryman’s suicide (see also: Okkervil River’s “John Allyn Smith Sails”) to remind us that those sad “boys and girls” only grow up into men and women that “drink, dry up, and then crumble into dust.”
8) “You Can Make Him Like You”
This song is note-worthy for just how subtly satirical Finn is able to be while still coming across as completely genuine. “You can make him like you” has double meaning as both, “you can make him similar to you” and “you can make him love you” and, of course, neither are true, as you cannot “make” anyone do either of those things. Finn’s constant reassurance that you “can,” however, is a darkly acerbic nod to the fact that certain people would probably like to be reassured that they can do these things that are not only impossible, but will only lead to people being hurt.
“Citrus” is an outlier in the Hold Steady catalog as it’s one of their few entirely acoustic songs. A whole album’s worth of this material might not work, but it’s perfect here as a pacer in what’s otherwise a constant barrage of sound. This is a very pretty song and “I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere” would probably be the opening chapter of the “How to Talk Like Craig Finn” textbook.
Stay Positive (2008)
10) “One for the Cutters”
On Stay Positive, the Hold Steady picked up where they left off on Boys and Girls in America, continuing to tell the stories of lost souls couched in increasingly dramatic musical arrangements. “One for the Cutters” might be their most directly narrative and detailed of these stories and Nicolay’s haunted-castle keyboards give the song a constant feeling of unease. It’s about a girl at a small-town college that gets caught up in the criminal activities of the townies that live there or, in other words, it’s a Hold Steady song.
11) “Lord, I’m Discouraged”
Slow-burning ballads are something that the Hold Steady have become particularly fond of over their past two albums. Their first real qualifier might have been “First Night” off of Boys and Girls, but they came as close as possible to perfecting the idea on “Lord, I’m Discouraged.” Kubler’s lead guitar has never sounded so alive or so emotional as it does in this mid-song solo and Finn’s lyrics are subtle and perfectly sculpted to make the narrator empathetic rather than maudlin, so that by the time you reach the end of the song, you actually feel invested in those devastating final lines.
12) “Slapped Actress”
One could imagine how, in an alternate reality, “Slapped Actress” might have been the last song that the Hold Steady ever released. In many ways, it sounds like the last Hold Steady song. It’s a thematic conclusion in the same way that “Positive Jam” was an opening thesis back on their first album.
Finn sums up the mission statement of the band by conjuring images of John Cassavetes’ film, Opening Night, to describe how being an entertainer for a living can be a double-edged sword. In the movie, Gena Rowlands portrays an aging actress who needs to come to terms with a scene in a play where she’s going to be stage “slapped” by another character. Finn reminds his listeners that “sometimes, actresses get slapped” and while “some nights it’s just entertainment… other nights, it’s work.” It’s a sobering, self-reflective realization at the end of four albums that, if nothing else, were all about recognizing the effects of the music industry, positive and negative, on the human consciousness.
If the Hold Steady’s catalog would have ended with a wordless chorus of voices fading out while Craig Finn repeatedly sighed in a resigned voice, “man we make our own movies,” that wouldn’t have been such a bad way to go out.
Bonus Song 1: “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”
I’ve always loved this cover of the classic Dylan song from the soundtrack of the 2007 film, I’m Not There.
Bonus Song 2: “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”
Anyone who watches Game of Thrones (this should be ALL of you), will also recognize this song that plays over the closing credits immediately after a very memorable scene from season 3.