The Hold Steady Stay in the Key of E Street
The bar band looks to rebound after first stumble
It’s inevitable. Any band soaring high on the hot, blustery air of critical praise and the wildly hyperbolic, extremely premature Best! Band! Ever! proclamations will stumble. Exhibit 408: the Hold Steady, whose old-fashioned, Boss-inspired, blue-collar barroom rock came a-wailin’ into a world awash in rock-writer platitudes with 2004’s Almost Killed Me. From there, it has only been up. Until their latest album, Heaven Is Whenever, which was absolutely no one’s favorite.
This is a big band grappling with big moves in a pivotal moment: the rebound. And though the early bluster might have been a bit much, the Hold Steady’s impact on the musical landscape nearly a decade ago is hard to overstate, comparable to that of Radiohead’s: They made indie-rock earnest. The year was 2004. Arcade Fire released Funeral, and singer/guitarist Craig Finn and Tad Kubler of the Twin Cities’ beloved Lifter Puller moved to Brooklyn and formed the Hold Steady, a band that sounded a lot more like E Street than anyone else in indie rock had ever dreamed. It even had a keyboardist.
After Almost Killed Me, the critical acclaim only snowballed for the born-again drug lore of Separation Sunday in 2005, and then even more in 2006 for the stadium-size Boys and Girls in America, probably the first record Finn ever made with clear verses and choruses—hell, singing notes—on every track. If you’re unfamiliar, Finn barks out his hyper-referential character sketches “like the sketchy drunk guy yelling in your ear at a show,” as former Voice writer Tom Breihan put it in his Pitchfork review of Sunday.
In fact, sincere as the band’s love of classic rock is, it’s that incredulous delivery that served as the Trojan horse for highly non-classic-rock people to embrace them in the first place. To not chuckle so much when these middle-age dorks called bullshit on Radiohead, eventually going on to tour with Dave Matthews and Counting Crows, and even covering frickin’ “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
We watched the Hold Steady grow sincere in public, and the influential effect has been staggering: from Titus Andronicus to Against Me! to the Gaslight Anthem to this year’s cause célèbre Japandroids, every notable capital-R “rock” band of indie’s past decade owes the Hold Steady a big beer.
Finn and Co. aren’t quite Grammy-friendly like the now Album of the Year winners Arcade Fire, who debuted simultaneously—they don’t have a U2 side. But they’ve written a bounty of great songs that can be enjoyed within their own universe or in the real world.
The elephant in the room is that the band—made up of surprisingly indistinct players; you wouldn’t know a Kubler solo in a blind test—is what makes Finn’s ceaseless hoarse cleverness palatable. Separation Sunday connected them to the rest of the universe. When “Lord to be 17 forever” turns into “Lord to be 33 forever” on Sunday’s tipping point, “Stevie Nix,” the lead guitar doubles itself. Mournful organ adds gravitas. All this after Holly Lujah—who began the record debating whether Jesus or her dealer’s gonna get her the highest—ambles into the ER “drinking gin from a jam jar.” It’s patently ridiculous, and it resembled a musical far more in 2005 than the thus not yet Broadway-bound American Idiot did. From this stuff, rabid fan bases mushroom.
The Hold Steady perform with Lucero and Kurt Braunohler on New Year’s Eve at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey.