Either you get them or you don’t. There’s no in-between. Like many a cult-band, they have a devoted following who will deconstruct the songs and the meanings and follow their every move. And then there are the others who will just spout easy rock and roll clichés, such as, they are merely an E-Street tribute band just because they have the balls to play keyboards, horns and loud guitars at the same time in 2008.
But the fact is that the detractors are also correct in a way. The band are kind of a tribute band to Springsteen and post-punk US rock, but this is by no means is a bad thing. On their last album, Boys and Girls in America, they had more tunes than Radiohead have had since OK Computer. The difference is that critics, always on the look-out for songs that take music and the industry in new directions, often forget the simple things: music is meant to make you sing, and dance and shout and make you feel fucking TRIUMPHANT. And the Hold Steady’s songs easily do this.
Thanks to the internet-gods, we’ve got our hands on the new release by the Hold Steady, Stay Positive. In many ways, this is almost their second album syndrome. BAGIA was a critical hit which elevated the band from US mid-western state fame to international indie stars. Their music was championed by Uncut magazine and they played almost every single major festival in the UK last summer. This brought them many new fans who are all eagerly and almost nervously awaiting this release. The good news is that Stay Positive won’t disappoint fans one bit. Returning to the Springsteen analogy, if BAGIA was their Born to Run, then Stay Positive is their Darkness on the Edge of Town: more confident, musically competent and darker. Some of the light-heartedness of BAGIA has been replaced by a more reflective series of songs which in many respects are dealing with the hard come-down after the “massive nights” of the past.
‘Constructive Summer’ opens the album and is as rocking a statement that the band has made since starting it off with a ‘Positive Jam’ on their first album, Almost Killed Me. With a reference to Joe Strummer and the summery mood to the tune, this will be one hell of a live song and my bet on new concert opener. The tune also has a nice tribute to Dillinger 4 with its “Double whisky, coke, no ice” line.
Lead single, ‘Sequestered in Memphis’ was the first song I heard from the album, thanks to an early US iTunes release. It is possibly the most catchy song they have ever written. Trumpets punctuate the song throughout while the key lines are classic Craig Finn: “In the barlight, she looked alright / In the daylight she looked desperate / That’s alright I was desperate too / I’m getting pretty sick of this interview”, while the chorus is a silly as it catchy, “Subpoenaed in Texas, Sequestered in Memphis” repeated over and over. The piano and guitar is excellent throughout and the structure of the song is what makes it work. This should receive massive radio air-play, and could have been a number one across the world, had they discovered time travel and gone back to the late 1970s.
Elsewhere the album sees the band experiment musically, ‘Navy Sheets’ has a most disconcerting Moog synth line which at first grates, but after a few listens is a great addition to the song. ‘One for the Cutters’ sees harpsichord start the song off. Once it gets started, it is a song which draws heavily on the classic Hold Steady themes: youth, drinking to excess and the eventual criminal proceedings and human fallout.
Unlike many of their previous songs, ‘One for the Cutters’ has a more general tone. People are not named, cities and places are alluded to. As with the rest of the songs on the album, the songs seem to be more general. Anyone looking for an update on what Charlemagne or Holly have been up to will be disappointed, although many will see the traits of these Hold Steady characters in the personalities on display on Stay Positive.
‘Magazines’ features Lucero singer Ben Nichols as back-up while ‘Both Crosses’ features members of the Drive By Truckers. ‘Lord, I’m Discouraged’ is a slow builder of a song, along the lines of ‘First Night’ or ‘Southtown Girls’ which veers into cheese with an incredibly self-absorbed guitar solo. Here the key Finnism is the chorus: “Excuses and half-truths and fortified wine” which for some reason has stuck in my head since the first listen. And probably will continue to float around my subconscious for years to come.
The stand-out track for me is ‘Joke About Jamaica’ a dark song which builds to a crescendo of wailing distorted guitar solos and thumping piano. Another brilliant Hold Steady song telling the story of an ageing groupie in a way only they can.
Overall, this album is a belter. Whether it is better than BAGIA is another question completely. It is darker in tone, rocks harder and perhaps more diverse in style than its predecessor. The lyrics seem to be more generalised and require less work to get into than any of their previous songs. While the lead single might be the catchiest thing they have ever written, the other songs are more complex. Whether this will win them new fans remains to be seen, but Stay Positive, is a step in the right direction for this band at this moment in their careers.
In a world where bands are discarded after disappointing second albums we must be grateful that the Hold Steady slipped through this record industry bullshit and has been able to grow and build on their talents and release a very strong fourth album. Personally I can’t wait to hear these songs in the live context and will be purchasing the album as soon as it hits the shelves.