Easily America’s best bar band since Izzy Stradlin & the Ju Ju Hounds, The Hold Steady returned this week with Stay Positive - their latest set of rousing anthems, morally challenged characters, and Craig Finn’s lyrical stream of unconsciousness. As expected, the critical acclaim and communal blog love afforded the band on Boys & Girls In America has spilled over to the new record. And honestly, these cats deserve it - I don’t remember the last time a band has so earnestly (and effectively) embraced the simplest instincts of both the classic rock lifestyle and the working man. The fact that these 5 regular guys are just that, regular, and living out their rock and roll fantasy is never far from the minds of their rabid fanbase. When Finn enthusiastically thanked the sold out crowd over and over last November at Terminal 5 for being the reason behind his band’s success it was very obvious that the man was 100% sincere.
So then, let’s talk about the new record - their first new material since their hard-earned success. Stay Positive once again has all the by-now familiar Hold Steady trademarks - the binge-drinking, the God fearing, and the youth gone wild sensationalism - as well as a few new tricks. “Navy Sheets” features a slippery synth-line and some inspired lyrics that seem to hint, for once, at a Finn character growing tired of the same old decadence. “Both Crosses” further expands the sonic palette with a J. Mascis cameo on banjo, and “One For The Cutters” has a fucking harpsichord of all things! Fortunately the band hasn’t forgotten how to, you know, rock. “Constructive Summer” barrels out of the gates, trying desperately to be this album’s “Stuck Between Stations”. Though it doesn’t quite reach those heights it does get things off to a ferocious start - it’s a soon-to-be concert sing-along with its call and response of “get hammered” and a toast to “St.” Joe Strummer. The title track is that “thank you” from November in song form - the good feelings and scene harmony spewing out of Finn like a keg stand. And “Sequestered In Memphis”, “Yeah Sapphire”, and “Magazines” are all more of the band’s patented pop-rock anthems that further cement these guy as light years beyond whoever the silver medal American "bar band" may be.
Although the band’s development as musicians has continued, to the point where calling them a bar band is just actually reductive, Stay Positive once again puts the main focus on Finn and the impossibly evocative nature of his stories and characters. His occasional borrowing of another’s lyric to decorate his own songs can still be an effective tool. Who can forget how “Certain Songs” picked off Billy Joel and Meatloaf lines to sentimentalize fans’ relationships with their favorite music, or how “tramps like us and we like tramps” from “Charlemagne In Sweatpants” tweaked a well-worn Bruce line into something entirely new. On “Both Crosses” he again hits up a Billy Joel lyric and salvages one of the only worthwhile lines from the man’s entire catalog - “you Catholic girls start much too late” - fitting it right into the song’s religious imagery. Whereas this line is well placed and a perfect fit (like Finn would have written it himself if it wasn’t already), not every reference is as successful. The album suffers in places from an overabundance of tacky self-references and, in “Joke About Jamaica”, too many Led Zeppelin song titles passed off as lyrics. The occasional lyrical connections between past albums and songs has always felt natural, like an inside joke was being used to further a current story or character. On Stay Positive these recycled lines come so often that the ones that don’t work seem stale and forced. In the song “Stay Positive” one of Separation Sunday’s thesis statements is used verbatim (“there’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get her the highest”), and makes it clear that an overused, misplaced reference can just seem like cheap pandering.
Thematically, Stay Positive isn’t as tight as Separation Sunday or Boys & Girls, but the occasional maturity that slips into the stories links this record to Born To Run. I’m not intentionally trying to further contribute to the by-now rote Springsteen comparisons, but it was on the Boss’s third album where his one-time reckless characters began their own growin’ up process. On Stay Positive more of Finn’s characters deal with redemption, forgiveness, and moving on - adulthood rears its ugly head and, surprisingly, some of these boys and girls seem okay with that. He reminds us that “the kids at the shows they’ll have kids of their own”, and in numerous songs there are references to being tired and worn out from years on the scene. Gone are the long-loved, heavily damaged characters like Hallelujah and Charlemagne, and in their place are people who may just be learning from old mistakes and bad habits. Not to say that the album isn’t littered with horny, Catholic teenagers and drug addicted, alcoholic pimps, because it is (OK, maybe no pimps), but there’s also plenty of regret and weariness to go with it, and in “Yeah Sapphire”, a guy cut and gushing blood looking to a woman to help him get clean. In the past, the closest Finn came to salvation was “How A Resurrection Really Feels”, which is more a character’s waking up after hitting her lowest point than a sincerely life-changing moment.
So, Stay Positive is certainly better than 95% of the rock albums you’ll hear this year, but after the genre defining triumphs of Separation Sunday and Boys & Girls In America, it sounds like the band coming back down to Earth instead of blasting off to the next level. For every new classic here there’s a snoozer like “Lord, I’m Discouraged” or “One For The Cutters” that begs for the skip button. As in the past though, the best songs on Stay Positive will no doubt get scratched into your soul, there just aren’t as many here as on the last 2 albums. The handful that work though (“Constructive Summer”, “Sequestered In Memphis”, “Yeah Sapphire”, and “Magazines” among them) are well worth the admission price, and if you haven’t yet given in to the hype surrounding this band, Stay Positive’s slick production and radio-ready choruses make for as good a place to start as any. You won’t get the inside jokes, but you’ll just have to learn them for next time.
Stream :: Sequestered In Memphis
(from Stay Positive. Buy from Vagrant Records)
And that video from the David Letterman Show the other night: