At the beginning of the year, The Hold Steady announced it was amicably parting ways with Franz Nicolay, whose whirling, dramatic piano and organ heavily marked the band’s last two albums, Boys And Girls In America and Stay Positive. Some fans assumed that Nicolay’s departure would make for a leaner, less melodramatic band, but The Hold Steady’s fifth album, Heaven Is Whenever, sounds as deliberately mythical as ever. Partly it’s the tempos, which are slower en masse than ever, but it’s also the tone of the songs, which are the most elegiac bunch that Craig Finn has written. Finn has apparently moved permanently away from his talk-rant vocal mode, and as his singing becomes more expressive it also takes on a wistful quality that fits songs that are explicitly about memory and time, as well as music that settles deeper into classic rock with fewer musical wrinkles than before.
The tone is set right at the top, with “The Sweet Part Of The City,” which ties lost days of sitting around the Twin Cities dreaming of doing something, anything, with the group’s present day: “We were bored so we started a band / We’d like to play for you.” The dreamlike quality of “We Can Get Together” fits a chorus that goes, “Heaven is whenever we can get together, lock your bedroom door and listen to your records,” repeated over ascending, processed backing-vocal oohs. The coda of “Barely Breathing”—“No one wins at violent shows”—is a bemused take on the teen-hardcore ethos celebrated on the last album’s “Stay Positive” and “Constructive Summer.” But Finn still has a handle on reality: “She said I just can’t sympathize with your rock and roll problems,” he sings, and paradoxically, he sounds like he understands perfectly.