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Album Review: The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever

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    Someone needs to help Craig Finn. Much like that distant cousin who just can’t shake off his addiction — you know, the one who shows up to Thanksgiving with black eyes, eats too much cranberry sauce, and makes the annual false promise that he’s going to “get better” — Finn continues to surround himself with self-destructive women, who may have great music tastes, but narcissistic personalities that only end up conflicting. If you’re a fan of The Hold Steady, you’re quite familiar with these types. Though some may argue these women flooded Finn’s earlier work with Lifter Puller, we first really met them in 2004’s Almost Killed Me, when they seemed fun and exciting, learned their names on Separation Sunday, and then started seeing the consequences in action on 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, though more specifically on 2008’s Stay Positive. You’d think after all this time Finn would shake these broads away.

    He hasn’t though — at least if the group’s latest effort is any indication.

    Heaven is Whenever pits us against the same cool-yet-crazy personalities, only introducing us to more. We meet characters like “Hurricane J”, learn the real definition of “Rock Problems”, and discover what’s the “Sweet Part of the City”. It’s sort of a rehash, but there’s this enlightened insight that Finn carries. On this record, he’s sort of like the older dude hanging around with new friends eight or nine years younger. He’s seen it all, he recognizes the consequences, but it doesn’t mean he’s heading for the door, either. This entire idea comes to fruition on the punk rock tornado, “Our Whole Lives”, where Finn casually says, “Father, I’ve sinned and I want to do it all again tonight,” and concludes, “We’re good guys but we can’t be good our whole lives.” Well, at least he’s being honest.

    That doesn’t necessarily bode well for the music, however. While not exactly the world’s greatest bar band (that accolade goes to Mr. Springsteen’s E Street act), The Hold Steady come pretty close. Every song sounds drenched in the sort of nonsensical attitude that usually inspires one to hit up a bar. They work off of rough power chords, they’re rich with bare bones instrumentation, and Finn carries the storytelling authority of a veteran bartender. But there’s only so much you can do with that sound before it starts to grow stale. That goes double when you’re revisiting lyrical territories. This brings to mind a recent interview with keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Nicolay, after having just left the band in January, told Paste Magazine, “They have their one big idea– making literate, wordy lyrics over big anthemic rock– and the last two records were about as good as I felt like I could do with that idea.” Having listened to Heaven is Whenever, it’s hard to argue with him.

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    A great deal of the songs here sound, well, sort of weathered– at least for this band. The very ’70s rock-inspired “Smidge” feels right, chugging along comfortably on guitar chords that sound straight out of a KISS record, but it doesn’t fade out as very memorable. Something’s missing. Where are the harmonies? Where is that wailing organ that layered the group’s last effort, Stay Positive? The same can be said for the Thin Lizzy-channeling “Rock Problems”, which relies too much on the guitar-work. It’s fun, sure, but there’s this wafting ghostly potential that sort of plagues the track. What’s sort of irritating is that you can hear it. The harmonies are there, so is the key work, but it’s so subdued that you’re left throwing your fist up forcefully, when you could be getting lost in the layers. But maybe that’s what you should be doing, anyhow.

    Let’s not get lost in the criticism, though. This isn’t a weak album. Not at all. It’s just not a great one. There isn’t a bad song to find here, they just don’t hold a caliber to any of the band’s previous work. Well, that’s not true, entirely. A few tracks shine in what altogether feels like woodwork. “Barely Breathing” sounds pulled from the Stay Positive-era, and musically it’s the strongest of the batch, dancing on catchy rhythms and juicy instrumentation. Then there’s “Hurricane J”, which comes off as a charmer, especially Finn’s lyrical hook (“I don’t want this to stop/I want you to know…”) that surfs on echoing harmonies. One of the album’s first burners, “Soft in the Center” ropes back Finn’s inner Springsteen, leading to a chorus that should have fans swinging out their cellphones and swaying ’em above their heads.

    Overall though, these aren’t the type of songs that yank and pull like “Hot Soft Light”, beg for a dance party like “Massive Nights”, or even glue to the brain like “Stay Postive”. They just rock and roll. With any other band, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But for an act like The Hold Steady, who have a knack for sucking the gravity out of a room and make all-day drinking binges more of a past time and less of a problem, rock and roll just doesn’t do it. Whether that’s to blame on Nicolay’s departure or the album’s writing in general, that’s up for debate. However, something is subtly missing here. But if there’s anything to be taken from Heaven is Whenever, it’s on the slower ballad “We Can Get Together”, where amongst all the chaos and frustrating women, Finn actually managed to find one girl worth keeping. She’s the girl on Heaven Hill, who wants to sit down on the floor and just… listen to records.

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    Well, that’s certainly an improvement.

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