The Hold Steady

Stay Positive

Written by: PP on 12/05/2010 06:47:16

Can you listen to a record for a year straight and still discover new details about it? I jotted down that question back in July 2009. Almost a year later - two years since I first listened to the record - The Hold Steady's fourth full length "Stay Positive" still stands as one of the best albums I've ever heard during my career as a music critic. Notice my deliberate use of the word album, because "Stay Positive" is not just a collection of individual songs, but an entity, a group of songs that follow a red thread - albeit an unpredictable and experimental one - throughout the 44 minute duration despite not qualifying as a concept album. That's why it has a "Universal acclaim" stamp from metacritic based on 34 professional reviews. Shit, make that 35. From the mainstream to the underground, from DIY punk rock zines to indie-oriented mainstream magazines, the critics have spoken: this album is revered as one of the greatest albums of the 21st century so far.

There are two key reasons to why people from so many different backgrounds come together to praise "Stay Positive". One of them is eccentric vocalist Craig Finn, whose unique singing style is comparable to no one. With a 50/50 split between spoken-word and singing, Finn delivers his vocals with the attitude and sound of a drunken, uneducated street musician rambling about whatever topic comes to mind..a gypsy musician, if you will. Or so it seems at first, that is, until you realize that this man's a story teller at heart, and a mighty good one at that. He's like that grandfather who's chock-full of vivid stories, bursting to share them with you to the dismay of your parents. The narratives are full of characters each more insane than the other, but yet they are believable, like those on the album's best song "One For The Cutters", a song about a perfectly normal sophomore college girl who falls in love with a townie (chav in England), witnesses a murder, and slowly drifts apart from her family. The imagery, the metaphors, the literary techniques used during the story are likely to make fans of Great English literature melt as Finn travels through the emotions, the feelings, and the events surrounding this bizarre event, only to finish off the story with an ambiguous "Her friends all seemed nice, she was getting good grades, but when she came home for Christmas, she just seemed distant and different", leaving it up to the listener to interpret and imagine what happened afterward with her relationship to her family and why.

It is these kind of small details what make Finn's stories on "Stay Positive" so engaging and hard-hitting on the listener. At one point, you'll be close to crying because of how emotionally wrecked some of these characters are, and elsewhere, you'll be chanting along to punk inspired lyrics like "there's gonna come a time when the true scene leaders forget where they differ and get the big picture cause the kids at their shows will have kids of their own... the sing-a-long songs will be our scriptures" ("Stay Positive"). But no matter which is the approach, the delivery is spot on and much more intelligent lyrically than the album at first lets you believe. Trust me, after two years of listening to this album every week, I should know.

The second reason is Franz Nicolay (who has since departed the band) and his creative inclusion of keyboards, accordion and harmonica that form the base of The Hold Steady sound. The synthesizer sound often creates a gypsy hammond organ feel, which is in perfect interplay with the intelligent guitar lines and the rest of the instrumental landscape, adding rich detail where it's needed and remaining absent when no such passages are necessary. Again, it's little things that make all the difference in the world for the songs on this album. The bright piano sound on "Yeah Sapphire", the frenetic saloon-punk on "Constructive Summer" (which Foxy Shazam were heavily inspired by), or the subtle effect-laden background detail on "Navy Sheets"...none of it is there just by chance, it's there because Nicolay recognized an intelligent way to embed just the correct sound for the mood and atmosphere built by Finn's lyrics.

The rest of the band doesn't come short either. A great example can be found in the quiet ballad "Lord, I'm Discouraged", which features some gentle but extremely effective electric guitar strumming and a soft drum beat in order to give space for another one of Finn's highlight moments behind the mic. When he sings "Lord I'm sorry, to question your wisdom, but my faith has been waivering, won't you show me a sign, and let me know you're listening", he does it with so much emotion and genuine honesty in his voice that it's difficult NOT to put yourselves into his shoes, even as an atheist or a non-believer. And just before, the listener has been set in the perfect emotional state to respond to these lyrics by one of the most heartfelt, soulful solos I've heard on a non-live recording. I feel like I'm repeating myself, but it's the abundance of small details like these that make "Stay Positive" a perfect album.

Finally, not only is "Stay Positive" an album rich in detail and extremely rewarding for the long-term listener, but it is also the one album I know where every single song is completely, utterly different from the one before without sounding like the band are unfocused or incoherent in any way. This is also why it's so difficult to compare The Hold Steady to other artists, because no two songs on the album are the same. It is punk when it needs to be, somber when a quiet moment is needed, and literally everything in between. If you've read this far, you'll understand why I have no other choice than to give "Stay Positive" the perfect mark, for it is a perfect, career-defining album that will be remembered even a decade after its release.


Download: One For The Cutters, Constructive Summer, Stay Positive, Lord I'm Discouraged
For the fans of: Frank Turner, Franz Nicolay, The Thermals, The Gaslight Anthem
Listen: Myspace

Release date 15.07.2008
Vagrant / Rough Trade

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