Re-released in the UK to coincide with a recent nationwide tour, the Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America has to be the first great album of 2007 – even if technically it was released in 2006.
Bombastic guitar riffs clash with crazy piano while the voice wails/raps beat-style poetry. This sounds like the E-Street band circa 1975-78 mixed with AC DC and some Thin Lizzy riffs thrown in for good measure, and unashamedly so. But unlike the work of the previous two bands mentioned, Boys and Girls in America is outstanding lyrically. This is the biggest sounding band in the world and they are truly deserving of such a status, much more than U2 or Coldplay for, unlike these bands, the Hold Steady make music which actually means something to people – there are no vague platitudes or desires for a beautiful day here.
Taking the title from Jack Kerouac is admittedly a bold thing to do, even verging on the arrogant, but the lyrics of singer-songwriter Craig Finn could ultimately be considered literary. These are tales of debauched youth, of parties, of getting high, of a world that no longer (for me at least) exists (until the weekend that is…). The Hold Steady have continued the tradition of outcast/drunk poetry, first touted by Kerouac and Ferlinghetti which then continued by Bukowski and Hunter S Thompson. This is the misguided youth of America getting smashed on drink and drugs. But so universal are these feelings that they could be felt by kids in the suburbs of London, Berlin or Rome.
The album starts off with ‘Stuck Between Stations’, possibly the best Bruce Springsteen song written by someone else. The song shows the literary knowledge of Craig Finn by quoting Kerouac, and even telling us so: “There are nights where I think Sal Paradise was right, Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together.” The song is a tribute to cult American poet John Berryman, however it universalises his life and allows Finn to make some pretty astute remarks on modern American life and the road from being a young teenager to adulthood: “We drink and we dry up and now we crumble into dust.”
Other highlights include ‘Hot Soft Light’ is about doing too much drinks and drugs: “It started recreational, it ended kind of medical”. But its far from a downer. This is the kind of music that the protagonists inside this song would probably blast out at full volume and not realise the irony of it all. ‘Chill Out Tent’ is a tale of brief romance between two spaced out people in the ‘Chill Out Tent’ of a band night or party, they kiss and it’s, “sexy…but kinda creepy” all at the same time. Again youth seems to be the key factor here – whatever happened to that girl on that fateful night? Where did she go? ‘Massive Nights’ is another tale of youthful love and free-spirited youth trying to evade the attentions of a chaperone and uses Thin Lizzy inspired riffs liberally.
‘First Night’ is one of only two slow songs on the album and my personal highlight. This too is very Springsteen influenced with a soaring piano and Finn actually singing, rather than slurring or rapping over the top. It has been said in some other reviews and on a Springsteen internet messageboard that the Boss himself emailed the Hold Steady to pass on his congratulations on ‘First Night’ and opener, ‘Stuck Between Stations’. If this is true then it is easy to see why: this is a song of love gained and love lost, of the end of youth of all of those themes that Springsteen touched upon on Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. This is probably the finest of Finn’s song-writing on the album and a moving performance. However, I still find the idea of the Boss emailing ridiculous – what’s his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org?
Boys and Girls in America is the musical equivalent to Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. Wild youthful abandonment, drinks, drugs, parties, free-spirited life, these are all covered by this album which, by right, should be the soundtrack of choice for all of those disenchanted kids who are into emo and bands like My Chemical Romance. But until they realise this, I’ll be content being one of a select few following the fortunes of this band who have, in Boys and Girls of America, released an epic album which shows that there is a future for rock and roll, and for you, the listener, too. Inspiring stuff.