Critical Voices: The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever

April 29, 2010

Whenever The Hold Steady is brought up in conversation, someone almost always references their “authenticity” and “gritty realism.” It’s pretty accurate to say that tales of teenage punks and hoodrats drinking and drugging at parties on the edge of the town is the leitmotif for just about every song they have ever sung.

The Hold Steady’s lead singer and primary songwriter, Craig Finn, is a sort of musical John Hughes to a generation of marginalized, alcohol-inclined adolescents looking for some rock stars. Hughes, director of The Breakfast Club, made such an indelible impression on a generation of ‘80s children because each of his main characters is an archetype with some light characterization thrown in for good measure. The characters which populate Finn’s songs develop along the same lines.

And nothing really changes in their most recent effort, Heaven Is Whenever. This is their fifth album and there are plenty more songs of boozing, banging, and broken hearts.

Finn is a master of writing rock anthems with enough detail to put his hard-partying youth credentials beyond suspicion, but enough vagaries to allow the listeners to inject themselves in the stories. Save for a reference to Minneapolis here or to Ybor City there, the songs are generally free of a specific place or time.

The opening track of the album, “Sweet Part of the City,” begins with a bluesy guitar riff that makes you think that you are about to hear something completely different from The Hold Steady. But Finn does what he does well—writing sing-along rock anthems—and before long, the album is ripping through guitar solos and telling tales of drug-induced dalliances. At its best Heaven is Whenever certainly rivals the high point from any of The Hold Steady’s previous albums. “Hurricane J,” the album’s first single, is perhaps the most quintessential Hold Steady song on the album, and probably the best.

The one difference between this and their previous efforts is the relative backgrounding of keyboards after the supposedly amicable departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. While his replacement is certainly passable, there are, sadly, no keyboard-driven songs, which were the hallmarks of previous albums.

While parts of the new album explore, Heaven Is Whenever is notable for its upholding of formula. After four albums that carved out a comfortable niche for them to excel in, why change? Both The Hold Steady and their fans like what they do, and Finn is more than happy to oblige his base.

Voice’s Choices: “Hurricane J,” “The Weekenders,” “Barely Breathing”

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