Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of rock ‘n’ roll’s go-to bar band not named Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The Hold Steady may only have six albums, but dissecting their discography proved to be quite the challenge. More than the vast majority of modern indie rock bands, there are constant echoes throughout their songwriting, with the same people, places, and words reoccurring throughout, not to mention the new ones that get introduced with each record. There’s a detailed mythology at play, albeit one that somehow always manages to stay cryptic.
Did that stop us from trying to decipher it? Hell no. While this certainly isn’t a linear breakdown of the band’s storytelling, it’s, at the very least, an inventory of the patterns in their music. So, take a seat and enjoy. We are the theater. You are the people.
Almost Killed Me (2004)
“Me and my friends are like…” (personnel): Craig Finn (vocals, guitar, spastic dancing), Tad Kubler (riffage), Galen Polivka (bass and funny faces), Judd Counsell (drums, quick exiting). Also, guest appearances from Franz Nicolay (future pianist, Pringles guy mustache) and Peter Hess (the Thorogood-worthy sax on “Hostile, Mass.”).
“Holly was a hoodrat” (recurring characters): Not quite yet. Although Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne take center stage on The Hold Steady’s next two albums, here they’re just mentioned in passing. Holly — referred to by her full name, “Hallelujah” — kisses another chick (“She tasted like those pickle chips”) in “Barfruit Blues”, and Charlemagne claims to see Christ in “Hostile, Mass.”, not yet the full-fledged pimp he’d become on Separation Sunday. His possibly false vision comes up again in the first line of “Killer Parties”. Craig Finn’s characters don’t pop up enough to make Almost Killed Me a true concept album, but the repeated phrases and archetypes hint at the band’s grander ambitions to come.
“The Sweet Part of the City” (recurring locales): Before we go any further, let’s lay out the rules: There’s no way we can find every single recurring person, place, and phrase on a Hold Steady album. They’re everywhere, even on their first record. Here are the ones that immediately come to mind: Ybor City (featured heavily in closer “Killer Parties” and several years later on Stay Positive‘s final track, “Slapped Actress”), the band’s Twin City roots (if not official birthplace), and Lynn, Massachusetts, which, in real life, seems a lot less threatening than its song makes it out to be.
“You know it’s always back and forth” (recurring phrases): The album title itself has popped up numerous times on subsequent Hold Steady tunes, from Stay Positive‘s “Yeah Sapphire” to Heaven Is Whenever‘s “Barely Breathing”. There’s also “She was a damn good dancer,” which predates its usage in Boys and Girls in America‘s “Stuck Between Stations”, arguably the band’s best song.
“Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer” (pop culture references): Opener “Positive Jam” is filled with them, teaching a drunken history lesson on the ’20s up through the ’80s that name-drops the Kennedys and MTV. And of course, there’s an assortment of music-related nicknames in “The Swish” and “Knuckles”: Robbie Robertson (“But people call me Robo”), Rick Danko (“But people call me one-hour photo”), Steve Perry (“but people call me Circuit City”), Right Said Fred, Freddy Fresh, etc.
“You’re pretty good with words” (best lyric): You can imagine the following exchange between Craig Finn and a Hold Steady fan: “She said, ‘It’s great to see you back in a bar band, baby’/ I said, ‘It’s great to see you’re still in a bar.'”
“Certain solos/ They get so scratched into our souls” (best solo): Tad Kubler’s no slouch on the band’s debut album (we love how his shredding on “Most People Are DJs” bleeds immediately into “Certain Songs”), but Almost Killed Me‘s best solo goes to Peter Hess for his helium sax line on “Hostile, Mass.”.
“Sketchy Meta”: Seriously, how many times does Finn exclaim the words “hold steady”? Six by our count, although there might be more.
“It was stark, but it was spacious” (album art ranking): Love the Polaroid collage, although I could do without the neon color splotches. It keeps me from remembering what any of the photos look like. Maybe that’s the point? Love it or hate it, the fluorescent haze captures the album’s balls-tripping vibe. #3 (out of 6)
“Everyone’s a critic” (verdict): With every Hold Steady album, the party gets grimmer, meaning that things are still in full, positive swing on Almost Killed Me, save for maybe the closing track. And while the band’s best records are the ones that balance the darkness and the light, there’s not a dud song to be found here. Simply put, Almost Killed Me kicked off a string of four excellent albums.
Separation Sunday (2005)
“Me and my friends are like…”: After making a guest appearance on Almost Killed Me, keyboardist Franz Nicolay joined The Hold Steady as a full-time member for Separation Sunday. His presence added a huge element to the band’s sound, removing it from the scatological bar-punk of the Lifter Puller days and toward something more anthemic. Also, say hi to new (and current) drummer Bobby Drake. It should be noted, however, that Judd Counsell still plays on a handful of songs. Finally, some more horns from Peter Hess and two additional players on album closer “How a Resurrection Really Feels”.
“Holly was a hoodrat”: Right from the opening track, “Hornets! Hornets”, a reference to the mascot of Craig Finn’s high school, Edina High in Minneapolis. We immediately get reunited with Holly, as she and Finn pass the campus while maniacally driving the wrong way down Route 169. Another crazy day in their reckless saga. Just like her brief mention on Almost Killed Me, she’s still fucking with his head, and he can’t decide where he wants their relationship to go. “I have to try so hard not to fall in love,” he admits. “I have to concentrate when we kiss.” He vehemently denies hooking up with her when accused on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”, though you can sense that he wants to, despite his sympathy for her unstable situation (sticking guitar strings into her skin, living in squats, estranged from her family, etc.).
And let’s not forget about the others. On the hyper-poetic “Cattle & the Creeping Things”, transient skinhead Gideon returns to Ybor City, prompting Finn to insert the whole gang’s existence into a psuedo-Christian context (something only hinted at on Almost Killed Me). Details of wild nights and drunken acquaintances are communicated with words like “exodus” and “prophet,” as if the lives of these characters are truly Biblical in spite of their reckless behavior. This hedo-religious juxtaposition runs throughout, especially with the pimp Charlemagne, who gets his own ne’er-do-well anthem with “Charlemagne In Sweatpants”.
“The Sweet Part of the City”: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Lowertown, Ybor City, Osseo, Minneapolis City Center, Loring Park (Penetration Park), Highway Route 169, Edina High School, St. Louis, and the Mississippi River, to name a few.
“You know it’s always back and forth”: Any and all references to crucifixions, resurrections, priests, deacons, and hoodrats.
“Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer”: Bones Brigade, Kate Bush, Vladimir Nobokov, Mary Tyler Moore, Profane Existence ‘zine, Rod Stewart, Nelson Algren, William Butler Yates, William Blake, ZZ Top, The Temptations, The Pogues, and one misspelled Stevie Nicks.
“You’re pretty good with words”: “She’s got blue black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back, it said/ ‘Damn right I’ll rise again’/ Yeah, damn right you’ll rise again.” The combination of Christ and tattoos — described here on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” — is Separation Sunday in a nutshell.
“Certain solos/ They get so scratched into our souls”: “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” finds Tad Kubler on some straight Molly Hatchet shit.
“It was stark, but it was spacious”: Simple, but it works. The photo was taken at the corner of Maspeth Avenue and Conselyea Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and evokes the blue-collar drudgery and restlessness expressed in the songs. #4
“Everyone’s a critic”: The most lyrically dense and thought-provoking record in The Hold Steady’s discography, Separation Sunday is a tale of redemption and friendship, vivid with characters and thick metaphors that keep Finn’s stories vague enough for interpretation and analysis. The lyrics are written with the same poetic romanticism as the beat writers Finn constantly cites, and it’s easy to understand why the album is a unanimous favorite among longtime fans.
Boys and Girls in America (2006)
“Me and my friends are like…”: The core lineup remains the same, but we get colorful guest vocals from Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and The Reputation’s Elizabeth Elmore, who play the drugged-out and romantically fated concertgoers on “Chillout Tent”. When The Hold Steady toured with Drive-By Truckers in fall of 2008, Patterson Hood and Shonna Tucker took over the roles. This makes us wonder if the DBT lyric “Tryin’ to hold it steady on the righteous path” (from 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark) is a direct reference to their tour mates. We’d like to think so. Also, various background vocals from Dana Kletter of Hole.
“Holly was a hoodrat”: Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne only get mentioned by name in “Same Kooks” and “First Night”, and things haven’t turned out so well for the trio. Charlemagne’s back on the streets (if he ever even left), Gideon’s drifting through hotel rooms, and Holly’s in the hospital, leaving Craig to yearn for their more carefree days. Sure, the parties were still dangerous. But they were also a lot more fun. Holly also might be the clairvoyant horse-better in “Chips Ahoy!”. Then again, it could be any of the ladies name-checked in album closer “Southtown Girls”.
“The Sweet Part of the City”: Minneapolis, St. Paul, the Northtown Mall, Southtown, Route 494, Mississippi River, and a stage and a PA up in Western Massachusetts.
“You know it’s always back and forth”: The title phrase, taken from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, opens the album and is repeated during “First Night”. Its themes of chaotic codependency are omnipresent throughout the album. Additionally, “When the chaperone crowned us the king and the queen,” from “Massive Nights” would make an appearance on the title track from Stay Positive.
Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer”: Jack Kerouac, Izzy Stradlin, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, although not all in the same song, sadly. Imagine those three having high tea together. Emphasis on the “high.”
“You’re pretty good with words”: Let’s take a minute to talk about “Stuck Between Stations”, which you could consider a thesis for the album. It’s a song about the transitional years between youth and experience, when we all want to do something with our lives, but — to paraphrase Craig Finn — resort to drinking, drying up, then crumbling into dust. If history is fair, this song will go down as a classic from the mid-2000s, as it so accurately illustrates the struggle many of us go through, the idea of finding a purpose for existence in a world that’s overcrowded with…well, everything. Finn takes the stance of Sal Paradise: Fuck the colossal expectations and live for the people, the love, and the intoxicants. Thus begins Boys and Girls in America.
Oh, and if we have to go with a favorite lyric, we’ll pick the entire first stanza:
“There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right.
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.
Sucking off each other at the demonstrations,
Making sure their makeup’s straight.
Crushing one another with colossal expectations,
Dependent, undisciplined, and sleeping late.”
And hell, let’s just keep going a bit:
“She was a really cool kisser,
And she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian,
She was a damn good dancer,
But she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.”
“Certain solos/ They get so scratched into our souls”: Kubler and Finn duel on “Southtown Girls”. And while it’s not technically a solo, Nicolay deserves credit for any time he bolsters Finn with his bellowing backing vocals.
“He was drunk and exhausted/ He was critically acclaimed and respected”: Boys and Girls in America was greeted with widespread praise upon its release, and The Hold Steady would ride that momentum toward 94k in sales, not to mention an exponentially growing fan base. It was the turning point in their career, as proven by the band’s live shows, which became rousing spectacles full of call-and-response audience interaction. Kind of like the album cover, only with fewer attractive co-eds. Speaking of which…
“It was stark, but it was spacious”: We always figured it was so bad it had to be tongue-in-cheek. Looks like a K-pop album with all that glitter and the Bratz font. Gets by on rose-tinted nostalgia. Dead last at #6.
Verdict: Boys and Girls in America is far more song-oriented than story driven. But even though Finn’s turn of phrase is trimmed and the tales are slightly more realistic (except for maybe “Chips Ahoy!”), the tunes remain just as potent thanks to the relationship-heavy subject matter. It’s also brilliantly produced by John Agnello, who brings out the flashier side of Kubler’s guitar and steers the band toward unabashed stadium rock. The best place to start, and the album you’ll probably come back to the most.
Stay Positive (2008)
“Me and my friends are like…”: The gang’s all here, with Nicolay adding some new instruments to his arsenal, namely a harpsichord on “One for the Cutters” that somehow doesn’t sound at all out of place. And get a load of the cameos, all of them understated and all of them great. Patterson Hood adds texture to “Navy Sheets” with some high harmonies, Lucero’s Ben Nichols gets a frog in his throat on the chorus of “Magazines”, and friggin’ J Mascis plays banjo on “Both Crosses”.
“Holly was a hoodrat”: Finn has said that Stay Positive examines his triumvirate of losers as grown-ups with more grown-up problems. Oddly enough, he never mentions them by name. Still, that doesn’t mean “Both Crosses” or “Lord, I’m Discouraged” couldn’t easily be about Holly. Maybe Charlemagne’s her drug dealer in the latter.
“The Sweet Part of the City”: The shit-kicked wasteland in opener “Constructive Summer” could be any small town in America. Elsewhere, you’ve got Texas and Memphis in one song, Cleveland, St. Paul, Massachusetts, Cheyenne on both a bonus and proper album track, a house on the south side, and Ybor City’s saddest, finest moment on closer “Slapped Actress”.
“You know it’s always back and forth”: As we said before, the phrase “almost killed me” gets repeated in “Yeah Sapphire”, and the final verse of “Massive Nights” gets reworked for the more optimistic final verse of the title track. But even with those echoes of the past, Stay Positive saw Finn moving away from revisiting previous lyrics.
“Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer”: That’s exactly what Finn asks his listeners to do on the opening track. After all, “He might have been our only decent teacher.” We also get Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” in the same song and a helluva lot more bands throughout, including Youth of Today, 7 Seconds (early, not late), a surprisingly sad tune about mispronouncing a Zeppelin song, and a couple of directors on “Slapped Actress” (Ben Gazzara and John Cassavettes).
“You’re pretty good with words”: When you describe the mixture of townies, murder, and harpsichord on “One for the Cutters”, it all sounds kind of silly. And maybe it is, but Finn sells it with razor-sharp internal rhyming. It still amazes me how well a line like “That night with the fight/ And the butterfly knife/ Was the first night she spent with that one guy she liked” works. For sheer quotability, though, we’ll go with one of the many mantras in “Constructive Summer”: “I met your savior/ I knelt at his feet/ And he took my 10 bucks and he went down the street.”
“Certain solos/ They get so scratched into our souls”: Live, I remember Kubler playing “Lord, I’m Discouraged” on a double-necked guitar. I could also be completely making that up. Fact or fiction, The Hold Steady’s first genuine power ballad evokes all kinds of stadium indulgence. And I mean that in a good way.
“He was drunk and exhausted/ He was critically acclaimed and respected”: Stay Positive continues The Hold Steady’s winning streak, which would end an album later with the very good but not great Heaven Is Whenever. More on that in a bit.
“Tell her we need sterile gauze”: Because we’d love to cut the bonus “track” in three. As much as we love “Ask Her for Adderall”, “Cheyenne Sunrise”, and “Two Handed Handshake”, couldn’t they at least have been separated? Having them crammed together into one song makes it hard to put them on a playlist. Chalk it up to The Hold Steady’s love of pre-digital vinyl, back when you had to listen to an entire album with no stops.
“It was stark, but it was spacious”: There’s no official word on what the emblem on the front actually is, but I prefer the meaning offered on The Hold Steady message board: a plus sign mixed with the symbol for infinity. Whatever the case, it makes for the band’s one truly iconic album cover. Our Editor-in-Chief even has it tattooed on his wrist! This one stands at No. 1, hands down.
Verdict: Stay Positive is at once the band’s most musically diverse record and its most lyrically cohesive. There’s an even bigger focus on real-life struggles — i.e. fast-fading dreams and dysfunctional relationships — than Boys and Girls in America (give or take a few mentions of townie murders and clairvoyance), and it’s got the biggest hooks, the biggest choruses, the biggest solos, the biggest everything.
Heaven Is Whenever (2010)
“Me and my friends are like…”: A fond farewell to Franz Nicolay, who has since toured with Against Me!, released a string of decent solo albums, and maintained his status as a general Renaissance Man. He still gets a writing credit for “Hurricane J”, even without playing on it. A few minutes later, “Barely Breathing” actually feels like the most Nicolay-esque song, with its piano and clarinet breakdown.
“Holly was a hoodrat”: Not anymore. With Heaven Is Whenever, it seems that Finn officially retired his most famous creations.
“The Sweet Part of the City”: Minneapolis locales Hennepin Avenue and Cedar-Riverside, plus St. Paul, Cheyenne, and Sacramento. And that’s just in the first song. Later on, we go to New York City, lots of lakes, the metal bar, the reservoir, Oxford, the 7th Street Entry, and Heaven. Lots and lots of mentions of Heaven as a place, a band, a song, a state of mind.
“You know it’s always back and forth”: Despite Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne being gone, we do get an official sequel to “Chips Ahoy!” in “The Weekenders”. Like all good parties, the fling between Finn and his unnamed clairvoyant had to end. Something tells us the money they won betting on all those horses didn’t last long.
“You’ve still got a little bit of clairvoyance”: Finn’s fascination with foresight really comes to a head on Boys and Girls in America, Stay Positive, and Heaven Is Whenever. First it’s fun (“Chips Ahoy!”), then it’s spooky (“Both Crosses”), and, finally depressing (“The Weekenders”).
“Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer”: Not this time. But there are plenty of other band mentions to go around, most of them having something to do with the word “Heaven,” as evidenced by the vinyl collection salute “We Can Get Together”. Let’s see if we can name all of them: Pavement, Heavenly, Hüsker Dü, The Psychedelic Furs, Meatloaf, and Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. For those of you playing at home, what did we miss?
“You’re pretty good with words”: It’s usually tough to pick the best Hold Steady lyric on an album, but when I first heard “The Weekenders”, I knew it had my favorite phrase I’d hear on the record. “She said the theme of this party’s the industrial age/ And you came in dressed like a train wreck” is beyond clever and instantly memorable.
“Certain solos/ They get so scratched into our souls”: Kubler’s wailing on “Rock Problems” proudly showcases the influence of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, who lived across the street from him when he was seven.
“He was Drunk and exhausted/ He was critically acclaimed and respected”: Heaven Is Whenever is often viewed as the first dent in The Hold Steady’s armor (even the band has mixed feelings toward it), but it still garnered a 76 on Metacritic. Not terrible by any means. Just not the grand slam everyone came to expect from the band, which places them one record shy of passing Steven Hyden’s Five-Album Test.
“It was stark, but it was spacious”: The image of a hand reaching toward the sky grooves nicely with the album’s more hopeful themes, but it doesn’t look like it belongs to anyone in the band. And while it very well could be (it’s hard to tell someone by just an arm), the cleanliness reminds us of the well-manicured kids on the cover of Boys and Girls In America. Something about it just doesn’t match the drunken swagger of The Hold Steady. Maybe it needs some tattoos. Or more hair. This one drops to #5.
Verdict: For me, Heaven Is Whenever doesn’t suffer for good songs. It’s more about the production, handled by Kubler and, shockingly, Separation Sunday‘s Dean Baltulonis. With Nicolay’s departure, it was as if they were trying to bury any kind of effect he had on the band. The keys are turned way down, the backing vocals are buried, and there’s a lot of spectral echoing that contradicts the record’s stadium aspirations. As a result, it just lacks some confidence. At least it rocks live, and there’s no denying the strong, if less verbose, songwriting.
– Dan Caffrey
Teeth Dreams (2014)
“Me and my friends are like…”: Touring guitarist Steve Selvidge (Lucero, The Bloodthirsty Lovers, The Secret Service) comes aboard as a full-time member, bringing the three-axe attack from the stage to the studio for the first time.
“The Sweet Part of the City”: St. Cloud, various prairie towns and big cities, South Minneapolis, a hotel and tire shop in Bay City, Michigan, Texas, a movie theater, a Methodist Hospital, a Waffle House. All of these locations prove that the “American sadness” Finn sings about on “On with the Business” is a very real, very physical place, indeed.
“You know it’s always back and forth”: At the time of this write-up, Teeth Dreams is barely two days old, so we haven’t caught many lyrics, characters, or phrases from previous albums yet. The one that immediately comes to mind is the flock of lambs from Finn’s dreams, which have popped up in several past Hold Steady songs, including “Most People Are DJs”, “Stay Positive”, and “Our Whole Lives”.
“You’ve still got a little bit of clairvoyance”: No you don’t. Teeth Dreams is the most believable Hold Steady album yet, with nary a clairvoyant, resurrection, or townie murder to be seen. Here, we get regular people, most of them having long burned out.
“Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer”: I’m still trying to figure out what movie Finn’s talking about in “Almost Everything”. The hints we get are that it’s “…loud, dumb, and bloody,” “the third act took place in a wormhole,” and “the hero ascended to Heaven.” The final Matrix film, perhaps? Event Horizon? We get Pink Floyd earlier in the song, and in album closer “Oaks”, the singer spends the day listening to The Weeknd’s House of Balloons, a seemingly uncharacteristic choice for someone in The Hold Steady. Maybe they’re referring to something else.
“You’re pretty good with words”: Then we headed home/ Got blocked at the exits by medics with stretchers/ Finally they said just forget it/ The kid that went down isn’t dead/ He just can’t find his phone.”
“Certain solos/ They get so scratched into our souls”: With three guitars, the solos become thicker and less pronounced, sometimes in a good way. “Oaks” keeps layering on the fuzz, making for a woozy beer haze that nicely escorts you out of the record. That being said, it would still be nice to get some immediately gratifying licks from some of the songs. The intro to opener “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” isn’t a proper solo per se, but it’s definitely an earworm. And that counts for something.
“It was stark, but it was spacious”: I have a feeling the cover of Teeth Dreams will be pretty divisive among fans. It is pretty ugly. But it also reflects many of the lyrics’ intended exhaustion, and I like how the gaps between the letters kind of look like teeth. Also, the whole design resembles a screen print — an apt aspect considering some of the band members’ love for the hardcore music of their youth. We’ll put this one at #2.
Verdict: I’m still marinating on the latest record. It’s definitely less celebratory than some of their past work, but I appreciate that the band is forcing themselves to get more economical with both their lyrics and musicality. After all, they couldn’t write Separation Sunday forever.