The Hold Steady's Craig Finn writes songs about what it means to live in and around music, where scenes clash and dreams of scenes shape the world they stand in for. Finn's characters wander from club to club, full of drink and drugs, living the life. They adopt teetering ideological stances around totems of rock, dance music, and hip-hop, worshiping at altars always on the brink of collapse. In Finn's world, "everyone's a critic and most people are DJs."
A pen-wielding bard who made his name with the beloved Midwestern indie band Lifter Puller, Finn sets his sharp slice-of-life observations against a wide rock backdrop with his new band, The Hold Steady. Trading in big rock gestures that alternately praise and mock the quotation marks they invite, Almost Killed Me invests stories about fateful rockers and ravers with thick punk crunch and hot guitar solos culled from somewhere between the local bar and the Sunset Strip. In "Positive Jam," Finn lays out a fiendishly economical history of America, sizing up decades from the '20s to the '90s in one or two lines each, before inviting "all the sniffling indie kids" and "clustered-up clever kids" to relive their own travails. A grand storyteller whose deliveryequal parts Hüsker Dü, hip-hop, and Beat poetryforegrounds his words, Finn sounds both consumed and repulsed by those "stern, stoned, and confident, coming up towards the jukebox." All of The Hold Steady's songs circle a similar core of on-the-dole hedonism, throwing out lines about warm beer, meth labs, ironic records, and rock stars who are more like black holes. It all makes for a narrow focus, but Finn's shapely lyrics pan out to give his microcosm an evocative macro view.
The Hold Steady's powerful yet somewhat generic rock style proves incidental to Finn's dense, wordy story-songs. As a whole, though, Almost Killed Me showcases a wise and gritty rock band still in it for life, through thick and thin. It's a striking album about a world in which music both wrecks and saves lives, handing out instructions and inspiration like pills and powder.