How The Hold Steady can make a better album than Heaven Is Whenever
The Hold Steady’s fifth album, Heaven Is Whenever, has been out for two months, and I’m still stuck with this nagging, restless emptiness I’ve felt since the first time I played it. It’s not that I don’t like Heaven Is Whenever; it’s a totally okay record. I just don’t love it, and I’m used to loving Hold Steady albums. Listening to Heaven Is Whenever for me is like going in to kiss my wife, and getting offered a handshake in return. My affection for The Hold Steady suddenly feels frustratingly platonic. (Though I’m still planning to see them tonight at Summerfest.)
After producing a blazing five-year run of four albums that I’d rank among the best rock records of the last decade, The Hold Steady is stuck in a rut of formulaic professionalism. Heaven Is Whenever is the kind of record Tom Petty routinely churns out when he’s not making Full Moon Fever or Wildflowers: There are a couple of songs for the greatest-hits album (“The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J”), a few solid second-tier tracks (“Rock Problems” and “We Can Get Together”), and a lot of pleasant but inessential filler you skip to get to those songs.
Again, that doesn’t make Heaven Is Whenever a bad album. The songs I like, I like a lot. I’m just not sure what this album is pointing toward. Is it a transitional work, where the band is finding its footing after the departure of (it turns out) vitally important keyboardist Franz Nicolay? Or is it a sign that The Hold Steady has run out of ideas? The former means more great albums might be on the horizon; the latter means I won’t be stocking any Hold Steady records after Stay Positive on my shelf.
As it is, Heaven Is Whenever sounds an awful lot like the band The Hold Steady’s detractors have always accused them of being. The Hold Steady’s defining characteristic—frequently hilarious and half-remembered tales of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll taking place in the Twin Cities, sung over meat-and-potatoes classic rock—has been codified into insular and self-referential shtick. As much as I enjoy “The Weekenders,” the best song on Heaven Is Whenever by a mile, it ends up reminding me of another (better) Hold Steady song it explicitly references, “Chips Ahoy!” from 2006’s Boys And Girls In America. And then I wonder why I’m bothering with The Phantom Menace when I could just watch The Empire Strikes Back.
I’m holding out hope that I’ll be driving somewhere in six months and listening to Heaven Is Whenever, and it will just click with me. I’ll realize that every Hold Steady album is insular and self-referential, and this album won’t sound so tired to me anymore. And then I’ll break into the A.V. Club CMS and delete this post. But until then, I am selflessly offering my record-producer services to one of my favorite bands. Here’s how (I think) The Hold Steady can get back to making better albums than Heaven Is Whenever.
1. Remember that you used to be funny
Heaven Is Whenever is the first Hold Steady album where the music is better than the lyrics. All compliments to Tad Kubler aside, this is not a good thing. I don’t know if there’s a single Craig Finn lyric on this record that I’ve had stuck in my head for even minute after I heard it, and that’s due mostly to Heaven Is Whenever not being nearly as funny as the other Hold Steady records.
Yeah, yeah, I know this is a “darker,” more “wistful” record. But does that explain the lack of impeccably crafted one-liners? When the Fake Craig Finn is more quotable than the real Craig Finn, perhaps it’s time to go back to the lyric sheet.
I think part of the problem is that the irony has been completely drained from The Hold Steady’s music. Where the band was once playful with classic-rock clichés, celebrating and subtly poking fun at them simultaneously, The Hold Steady now takes them as literal gospel. There’s nothing wrong with being earnest so long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, but I fear The Hold Steady is losing its sense of humor in favor of being the self-important standard-bearer for “serious” rock fans. Heaven Is Whenever desperately needs a jokey Neal Schon reference or two to take the piss out of what is otherwise a painfully straightforward record.
2. Find new lyrical inspirations
This one goes out directly to Craig Finn, so the rest of you can just skip to No. 3: Craig, it’s time to stop writing about being young and stoned in the Twin Cities. You’ve done it brilliantly for a long time, but the subject matter is now officially exhausted. From one obsessive rock-geek to another, I think you should write songs about your life now. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to bet my copy of Separation Sunday that you’ve had enough interesting life experiences since the early ’90s to warrant a shift in your lyrical obsessions. Give me the inside scoop on being a singer in a popular indie-rock band. (You touch on this a bit in "Rock Problems.") Paint scathingly satirical portraits of the Brooklyn music scene. Survey the landscape of your rabid fanbase and spin coming-of-age tales from that. To make the obligatory Bruce Springsteen reference in my Hold Steady blog post, even The Boss moved on from writing about Janey and the magic rat after a couple of records. Now it’s your turn.
Okay, so I know I just told Craig Finn to move on from the early ’90s. (I thought I told you not read No. 2.) But The Hold Steady needs something to shake up the limited sonic palette on their records, and since nobody wants to hear this band graft bloopy “experimental” electronics on its guitar-heavy anthems, how about going the unplugged route and tossing in a few shaggy and rocking acoustic numbers on the next record? The Live At Fingerprints EP shows how surprisingly well Hold Steady songs stand up in an unplugged setting, and it would save everybody the hassle and shame of begging Nicolay to re-join the band and liven everything back up again.