The Hold Steady kicked off its 2004 debut with the sarcastic "Positive Jam," a bitterly funny rant recounting a century's worth of disasters and disappointments in just over three minutes. Four years later, singer Craig Finn has cleared the bile out of his throat and turned into a regular Norman Vincent Peale on Stay Positive, a record informed as much by the glowing response to 2006's Boys And Girls In America as Finn's usual Coors 'n' Catholicism fixations. Like the run of victory-lap tours The Hold Steady has done the past few years, Stay Positive is the work of a band that won't take its current beloved status for granted. Finn even takes a moment during Stay Positive's title track to give a grateful shout-out to his fans. "We couldn't have even done this if it wasn't for you," he sings, stopping just short of the inevitable "I love you, man!" capper.
The thing about victory laps is that they end where they began; similarly, Stay Positive is the first Hold Steady record to sound almost exactly like its predecessor. Stylistic departures like the harpsichord tinkling on "One For The Cutters" and the spooky, Zeppelin-esque balladry of "Both Crosses" aside, Stay Positive sticks with the slick, surgingly anthemic formula of Boys And Girls In America. And that formula—consisting of E Street piano flourishes, hair-metal guitar solos, and other assorted arena-rock clichés that The Hold Steady revives with straight-faced sincerity—arguably works better than ever on the dynamic one-two punch of "Constructive Summer" and "Sequestered In Memphis," which rank with the band's best rockers. Elsewhere, Finn drops old catchphrases in his lyrics like a funny Mike Myers, but for the first time, his words take a back seat to The Hold Steady's most accessible music yet. A record made for blasting and getting blasted, Stay Positive makes it easy to follow through on its title.