The Hold Steady

Heaven Is Whenever

Written by: PP on 11/07/2010 02:19:48

"How do you follow up a perfect album" is a question only a handful of bands ever get the chance to ask themselves. One of the select few bands to have stood in that situation is The Hold Steady, whose previous album "Stay Positive" from 2008 is a timeless classic, and certainly in the top 3 best albums I've ever come across. It was an album where two astonishingly good songwriters matured to complement each other perfectly; the lyrical and vocal treasure chest Craig Finn, whose old, drunken bar-regular singing style and lyrical universe touched punks, indie kids, metalheads, and mainstream fans alike, and multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay, who provided the perfect contrasting element with his eccentric keyboard, accordion and harmonica playing to help forge the overwhelming detail found throughout the record. Perhaps there were disagreements about the future musical direction of the band, or maybe Nicolay felt that he had accomplished exactly what he wanted on "Stay Positive", but he departed the band prior to the writing and recording of the fifth Hold Steady album, "Heaven Is Whenever".

Alas, on first listen, looming disappointment awaits any fan of "Stay Positive". Lead guitarist Kubler has taken over the keyboard duties on the studio recording, and boy, it shows. It's as if a large portion of The Hold Steady soundscape is missing, leaving the songs sounding half-finished and hollow, lacking in detail and layers. The impact is so huge that you can't blame people for giving up on this record after just five or six listens because what used to be a delicate balance between keyboard, accordion and guitar has now been replaced by strictly guitar-driven songwriting. But lets not forget that Craig Finn is one of the most talented lyricists and songwriters of our time, so once you suck it up and start paying attention, another - albeit different - world of wonders begins to open. Just like how fine wine gets better with age, "Heaven Is Whenever" is a hell of a grower. Twenty listens in, you're still scratching your head and wondering what to think about the record.

Then you start spotting lyrical gems such as "but it's not gonna be like in romantic comedies, in the end I bet no one learns a lesson" or my personal favorite, "she said the theme of this party was the industrial age....and you came in dressed like a train wreck". You start singing along to driving rock songs like "The Smidge", and become emotionally touched by Craig's soft croons on a song like "The Weekenders", where he starts the song off with "there was that whole weird thing with the horses, I think they know exactly what happened, I don't think it needs any explaining". And this is the real beauty about Finn's lyricism; it is these little allusions to events unbeknownst to the listener that make each Hold Steady song such an enthralling listen. He leaves so much space for your own imagination and interpretation of the story, much like reading a very good book of fiction. This isn't spoon-fed pop rock. This is art rock at its finest perfectly disguised into an accessible indie-flavoured rock platform. The listener (or his/her ability) defines how much detail the songs contain, which is why it's so difficult to find bands that sound even remotely similar to The Hold Steady. Some listeners - like the undersigned - will discover entirely new interpretations of Finn's lyrics and allow them to apply and affect their own lives. Others will just be happy nodding along to the smooth melodies or the gentle guitar strumming. Songs like "Rock Problems" and "Hurricane J" make the latter easy, whereas "We Can Get Together" and "A Slight Discomfort" will allow for the former to flourish. Whichever type of listener you are - or even if you are somewhere in between - I think we can agree that there are some pretty fuckin' incredible songs stuffed within this album. It's no "Stay Positive", but it's the best the band can do without Nicolay's exhilarating keyboard work giving the songs an extra dimension. To finish off with another great quote from the record: "You can't get every girl, you'll get the ones you love the best. You Won't get every girl, you'll love the ones you get the best."

Download: The Weekenders, Rock Problems, Hurricane J
For the fans of: Frank Turner, The Gaslight Anthem, Franz Nicolay
Listen: Myspace

Release date 04.05.2010
Vagrant / Rough Trade

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