The Hold Steady: “Stay Positive”
The Hold Steady’s fourth album, Stay Positive, contains more Led Zeppelin-related jokes than pretty much any other rock album you care to name. Jokes in the music. Jokes in the lyrics. One song, “Joke About Jamaica,” gets its title from Zep’s own stab at linguistic humor, “D’yer Maker,” the title of which is referenced explicitly. Add in a celebratory reference to Joe Strummer and you’ve got a fairly audacious bit of name-dropping– the kind of casual comandeering of rock and roll history that only a really great rock band could pull off without folding under their own pretensions.
But Stay Positive has a lot more going on than just mythologizing– it’s also got plenty of self-mythologizing. Craig Finn’s songwriting has always dwelt in its own self-made world, with each new Hold Steady album rife with lyrical references to past songs, creating an increasingly intricate web of stories and symbols, people and places both fictional and real, that brings to Finn’s writing both thematic complexity and narrative thrust. The new album doesn’t feature any appearances from his usual cast of characters– there’s no Charlemagne in sweatpants or Holly the hoodrat to be found– but it does reference older songs repeatedly. He’s not being lazy; he’s building his own universe, penning his own mythology.
Add all that together and it’s clear that, with the new album, The Hold Steady is shooting for the rock and roll pantheon. Which, of course, they’ve always done; their debut album presented a talent and a creative vision that was already fully-formed, and the two albums since then have been increasingly ambitious and heady affairs, executed with such energy and intelligence that the band has quickly risen to the top of the indie rock world. Their last album, 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, made it obvious: A compelling case could be made for The Hold Steady as the greatest rock band in the world today.
With Stay Positive, the band’s ambitions are still growing, their vision is still becoming increasingly complex and impressive, and they do nothing to cast doubt on their claim to making the best damn rock and roll of anybody in 2008. Which isn’t to say that they still sound as invincible on that last album; they fumble not once but several times on the new album, and it lacks both the addictive, piledriving momentum of Separation Sunday and the parade of blindingly great rock songs of Boys and Girls. But here’s the important thing: Stay Positive is exactly the kind of album the band should be making after the breakthrough of Boys and Girls, as it finds them reminding us of why we loved them to begin with while broadening and expanding their sounds into uncharted territories. At its best, the album can be as good as anything they’ve ever done; at its worst, it topples a bit under their own ambitions, but the mere fact that they have such grand ambitions is exhilarating in and of itself. So it isn’t quite a great Hold Steady album, but it just might enhance their standing as a really great band.
Certainly it follows their trend of broadening their palette of sounds with each new album; Separation Sunday introduced some E-Street horns into the mix, Boys and Girls found them slowing down for some acoustic numbers and even bringing in some steel guitar and strings, and Stay Positive… well, it’s the biggest expansion yet: More horns, but also vibes, synths, even some banjo. And would you believe that the dark brew of the acoustic “Both Crosses” mines some of the same sonic terrain as Radiohead’s In Rainbows? It’s also their most mellow album yet– relatively speaking, of course. “Yeah Sapphire” turns down the amps a bit for a softer-rocking, convincingly bittersweet Hold Steady number, “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is a slow, bluesy ballad that finally erupts into a scorching guitar solo, and even the rocker “Magazines” is a bit lighter than their past work, emphasizing melody over visceral, Thin Lizzy guitar work.
They seem determined not to be pigeonholed or to allow their familiar song to grow stale, which is in itself enough to make for an admirable and exciting album, though it also means that it’s rather disappointing when the band does choose to repeat themselves a little too closely; “Navy Sheets” sounds too much like a slowed-down version of “Same Kooks” to really make much of an impression, and the cheesy synthesizers don’t make it any less grating. And where the band seemed superhuman on Boys and Girls, they show us here that they’re fully capable of overreaching, as on the long story-song “One for the Cutters,” which is a boring and repetitive song despite its kitschy harpsichord. It doesn’t help that these two disposable songs are back-to-back toward the front end of the album.
Despite how genuinely thrilling some of these experiments can be, it’s probably telling that the most immediately memorable songs here are the ones are the vintage Hold Steady rockers. “Constructive Summer” kick-starts the album with a blast of nervy punk energy and fist-pumping arena rock attitude, and it’s followed closely by the beer-soaked, horn-laden sing-along of “Sequestered in Memphis.” The title track, with its “whoa whoa” chorus and its blaring organ and chiming guitar, is the kind of thing these guys can play in their sleep by this point, but damn if they don’t do it better than anybody else does it. It’s still an exhilarating sound no matter how many times we’ve heard it.
Craig Finn makes subtle innovations as a lyricist, as well. The drugs, sex, and alcohol are still here, but this time they play a much smaller role, taking a backseat to a more complex and thematically rich set of songs. And though Finn’s Catholic guilt makes a bit of a comeback, the conceptual thrust of the last couple of records is gone. Finn has stated that this isn’t a concept album so much as a theme record, and indeed, there are repeating ideas and motifs woven together to create a rather complicated album-length statement. Many of these songs reflect on growing older while still playing in a rock band– Finn wonders what it will be like when “the kids at the shows have kids of their own”– and there are some surprising flashes of violence in these songs that give the whole record a feel of seriousness and urgency. It’s an album about growing up and accepting responsibility, about priorities and duties. It’s also their most spiritually complex album yet– what do we make of it when Finn declares that “we are our only saviors,” and then, a few songs later, enthuses, “I was a skeptic at first but these miracles work”? (Alas, the former sentiment gets the final word, with Finn repeating a parallel line, “we make our own movies,” in the last song.)
In the end, Stay Positive can’t help but sound a bit like a transitional album as opposed to the triumphant, barn-burning masterpiece of Boys and Girls in America, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a step forward. Say what you will about these songs, but one thing is clear: The Hold Steady has any number of directions they can take from here, and this record provides them with more possibilities than ever before. The album’s final two songs and best two songs, “Joke About Jamaica” and “Slapped Actress,” provide the most exciting options. On these two tracks, The Hold Steady once again sounds invincible, rocking as hard and as effortlessly as ever before while also introducing subtle variations into the arrangements, making them sound like nothing else the band has done before. It’s a stirring conclusion that sends listeners away with an undeniably good feeling– that The Hold Steady still reigns as the best rock band in the world, and they’ve probably got their best work still to come.