by Craig Howieson
A collection of cautionary tales told with a back alley beauty. The Hold Steady’s eighth outing is a biblical powerhouse of a record
The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn wields his words like a pastor. Swaying from the pulpit, giddy on communion wine, he shepherds his congregation of escapists and idealists. The pews in front of him are filled with the faces of those looking for some sense of saviour in his tales of burnouts and dreamers. Riddled with tough breaks and bad decisions, Finn’s parables stalk the shadowy lives of those who are too reckless with their hearts – who twist when they should stick, and dissolve to nothing like aspirin in a whiskey glass.
It has barely been 18 months since The Hold Steady released their last record, Thrashing Thru The Passion. Arriving after a five-year hiatus of sorts, it was pieced together from a selection of singles and completed with studio tracks from the same sessions. Not quite an album in the traditional sense, it still contained all the hallmarks of the band’s sound – even if it was trickier to decipher the web of lyrical wires in the switchboard.
In contrast, Open Door Policy is graced with the storytelling prowess of the best work; characters (old and new) appear and disappear, and threads are traced back through their dense history. Basking in a back alley beauty, like sunbeams reflected through discarded beer bottles, we are once again thrown headfirst into tales of middle America, where the coasts become a dream, and a cast of misfits balance miracles with mundanity (‘When you’re stuck out in the middle / You just figure that there’s something you’re missing’ – Lanyards).
Finn knows that the majority of his fans often have little if anything in common with those in his songs. They turn up to disappear into lives that aren’t their own – savouring a taste of living life on the edge with none of the risk involved. Where his real talent lies is in making his murky stories glamorous enough to make the life seem attractive, before stinging you with the reality of it all. On Open Door Policy, perhaps more so than ever before, it becomes apparent that his tales and sermons are not an inside joke, or a wasted weekend to envy. They are cautionary – comments on hardship and perilous cycles, and the forces that keep us there. On Family Farm, there is a warning – ‘If you’re still in Pennsylvania / I’d advise you not to leave… Let your sins be of omission.’ As his characters tumble drunk out of taverns, swinging punches that never land, Finn is concerned about how they came to this, what comes after, and who picks up the fight.
His words, however, would never land quite so swiftly without his powerhouse of saints pounding home classic rock jams behind him; propping him up with absolutely no care as to whether Cheap Trick size riffs are still in vogue. Guitarist, Tad Kubler, has always been the cornerstone of The Hold Steady’s sound, and after Steve Selvidge’s addition in 2010, they quickly established themselves as one of the great guitar duos. On Open Door Policy, their range of ideas appear inexhaustible; there’s the weeping solo on Feelers, the dead of night loom found in the intro to Spices, and the tangled web of riffs on Prior Procedure – on which they tear through riffs like two drivers round a racetrack, weaving in and out of each other’s lanes, seemingly only prevented from a crash by some higher power. It’s big brash rock music, but it’s life affirming stuff. Franz Nicolay continues to prove his reintroduction into the band in 2016 was a stroke of genius: his integral keys striking like lightning bolts of happiness whether ably carrying the full weight of the track or merely providing the croutons on the salad. And the not so secret seventh member, Josh Kaufman, as the band have affectionately referred to him in the past again picks up production duties. His presence is not obtrusive, but he knows how to piece together the best bits of the band – his touch never more evident than on the ska-infused horns of Family Farm.
But it will always be the stories we return for, and, eight albums in, the band still have plenty to spin. Stuffed to the brim with religious imagery borne of his midwest catholic upbringing (‘But here she is rising again / Happy Easter’ – Spices), Finn is careful not to become nostalgic or sentimental about those in his songs. On Unpleasant Breakfast, after the fanfare of a screaming firework of backing vocals, Finn reminds himself – ‘I no longer see romance in these ghosts.’ It’s impossible to glamourise the unglamorous, Finn instead creates worlds that act as a distorted mirror of what could have been for any of us in different circumstances.
Around the release of Thrashing Thru The Passion, the band were vocal about feeling they were the best version of themselves. It’s not an unusual statement for a group looking to promote a new record, and it is something they have repeated this time around. What makes their claim different though is that they haven’t changed what they do; they have just sharpened their tools to remain as good, if not better than they have ever been. Their long held title as the worlds’ best bar band has worn thin, and despite being bestowed with love, it does them a disservice. World’s best rock and roll band period though? On this form, it’s hard to disagree.
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