The Hold Steady is Craig Finn, and Craig Finn is really damn good at what he does. The guys in the band holding instruments are great at what they’re doing, but what they’re doing is playing classic rock, and when it comes down to it, who cares about classic rock? Thirty-five year-old roofers and sarcastic indie kids, sure, but then why the hell are The Hold Steady getting so much hype? It’s not the riffs, stupid, it’s Craig Finn.
Finn is an unlikely rock band front-man. With a biting voice that’s more punk than rock n roll, Finn’s words spill out like that guy next to you at the bar who won’t stop talking but you don’t really mind. Would-be classic rock fans may jump out and accuse him of not being able to sing, and this would be mostly true. Finn is a lyricist and not a singer. When he sings: “She was a really cool kisser/ And she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian”, it’s the way “kisser”, “strict” and “Christian” sound together. It’s phrases like “when they kiss/ they spit white noise” and “there are guys with wild eyes/ when they ask to get you high” that the songs are built on, not vocal prowess.
Finn may be good with words, but he’s a genius at description. The very first line of the album, Finn snarls: “There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right/ Boy and girls in America have such a sad time together/ sucking off each other at demonstrations/ making sure their make-ups right/ crushing one another with colossal expectations/ dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late.” In this stanza, Finn sets the curiously bleak tone for how he is about to depict the Boys and Girls in America. Describing real people Finn knew while growing up in Minneapolis and, to a lesser extent, the east coast, his stories focus on the plight of the burnt-out teens and the different ways they try to get by. There are upbeat songs, like “Massive Nights” a nostalgic (until the end, that is) song about after-prom partying that describes things in that adjective-deprived teenage vernacular: “Every song was right/ All that wine was tight/ Your friends were pretty cool/ And my friends were acting cool”. The vagueness captures the way one party kind of blurs into another without forgetting that excitement that surrounds being young and drunk. “Chillout Tent” is a bizarre but hilarious narrative of a guy and a girl who hook-up at one of those recovery tents at a festival after eating too many mushrooms. The song has a cute, musical feel to it (guest singers take the guy and girls lines) that verges on corniness but is saved by its earnestness.
Happy, nostalgic songs about teens partying set to classic rock, though a component of the album, is not what The Hold Steady are about. Songs like “First Night”, a hauntingly pretty piano driven ballad, gives you more insight into the world Finn is describing. The song marks the return of Charlemagne, one of the protagonists of the last album, Separation Sunday. Charlemagne seeks love; she gets it from drugs, but it’s fleeting. She gets it from guys but they hurt her. She gets it in God, but she can’t hold onto it. In the song, Finn describes how her whole life is spent trying to capture that high that she felt on the first night. This decline – this slow decay – is something Finn has approached from many different angles over the last three albums. Often painted in a more redeeming light, “First Night” is frail, sadder than any Hold Steady song so far.
The majority of songs on Boys and Girls in America find themselves, mood-wise, between the un-ironic fervor of “Massive Nights” and the frail, hollow beauty of “First Night”. More artist than preacher, Finn is usually content to express himself without any specific motive in mind. On “Hot Soft Light”, he talks ambiguously about something bad that happened (“I think my attorney’s gonna second that notion”) without ever really explaining. Drinking, in the song, is painted as wrong but mostly harmless; the character’s dependence is compared to an octopus grabbing hold and tightening its tentacles. In “Chips Ahoy”, a woman’s addictions (both gambling and drugs) don’t cause the type of destruction they do to Charlemagne, but they dull her highs and lows, making her indifferent to the world around her. Desperate about this aloofishness, her boyfriend pleads: “How am I supposed to know that you’re high/ If you won’t let me touch you?/ How am I supposed to know that you’re high/ If you won’t even dance?” Set to dance-able rock music, complete with backing “whoas” after “touch you” and “dance”, the song is like the young/old women portrait: two different things depending on the way you look at it. If you’re not familiar with it, the portrait depicts a beautiful woman with her head turned away….look at it more closely and the same image describes an old hag. Others may see the old hag first. Once you can see either woman, you can switch between them, but try as you might, you can’t see both at once. So in terms of the song “Chips Ahoy”: on one hand it’s fun, on the other it’s depressing; the two feelings are locked so closely together that it’s tough to tell where one ends and the other begins.
One of the bands best songs to date, “You Can Make Him Like You”, is a song about empowerment. Not the empowerment of finding God (“Citrus”) or escape (“Stuck Between Stations”), but something less dramatic. It’s as if Finn has thrown his hands up, admitting that this is a world of cheap drugs, bad sex and fistfights. The characters aren’t struggling for some white-picket fence kind of happiness here; the stakes are different, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a stand. Finn speaks directly to this girl, who has been acting as her lazy boyfriend’s drug liaison. He doesn’t tell her to quit drugs or go back to school or move in with her parents; instead, he suggests: “You don’t have to deal with the dealers/ Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers”. His voice – tough but sincere – works over and over to convince the girl that she doesn’t need to keep doing what she’s been doing just cause it’s convenient. The simple power of the song’s repeated chorus, “There’s always other boys/ There’s always other boyfriends” speaks to the under-confident person in everyone.
Although they ain’t no spring chickens, The Hold Steady aren’t some weather-worn bar band finally making it big. Members of the band have done all sorts of genres before (not including classic rock): it took their nostalgic fondness for riff-heavy, Zeppelin inspired rock to get them excited about music again. Finn talked about wanting to make “smart rock music”, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. While that 35-year old roofer appreciates the fast blues rockin of “Same Kooks” without ever processing a word, the skinny indie kid with 400 backpack buttons drools over lines like: “She looked just like a baby bird/ All new and wet and trying to light a Parliament”. The songs can go from small-town bar jukebox to a music critic’s CD player, but it easy to imagine how their sound could get lost somewhere in the middle. To most, The Hold Steady are just like that young/old woman portrait….a snarling voice set atop some ubiquitous rock music. But really, understanding Finn and enjoying the music aren’t mutually exclusive activities – figure out how to do it, and you’ll see what all the buzz is about.