The Hold Steady – Stay Positive (Some Thoughts)

Since getting the new The Hold Steady album on Tuesday, I think I must have listened to the albums all the way through almost 6 or 7 times, so I’ve had some time to digest this album. What follows are some of my collected thoughts.

Musically, you can tell instantly that this is a Hold Steady album, because all the requisite elements are there: the E-Street piano, the massive guitar hooks, sing-along choruses, the shimmering keyboards, and Craig Finn’s unmistakable voice. But this is not to say that there are no musical changes, because there are. For example, check the horns on “Sequestered in Memphis,” the harpischord (?!) on “One for the Cutters,” the Slash-esque guitar solo on “Lord, I’m Discouraged” (which I’ve written plenty about already), the banjo and the theremin (what?) on “Both Crosses,” and finally, the vocoder on “Joke about Jamaica” (granted, it’s not exactly Frampton Comes Alive).

While none of these things are musically innovative, The Hold Steady executes them very well: you just want to raise your drink and sing along and just not give a fuck how you sound, because you know the rest of the bar is just as drunk as you are and they don’t give a fuck too. Plus, the sense of joy is undeniable in these songs, not necessarily reflected in their lyrical contents, but from the way the band plays. It is very obvious that the band had fun recording the album. So even when the songs get dark and heavy–and believe me, they do–the atmosphere is never dragged down into the abyss: think of it as a sing-along to oblivion.

Which brings me to the lyrics: The Hold Steady is mining familiar territories on the album, namely, teenage wasteland in the middle of nowhere, filled with lost souls who abuse substance as a way to fill their empty lives until they die or overdose, whichever comes first. But whereas their last album, Boys and Girls in America, celebrated these characters with exuberance, this album is not so high on their prospects. In fact, Craig Finn describes something like despair when he sings about people whose fathers worked on the mills, and who will themselves work on the mills until they die. So these people indulge in substance abuse and meaningless sex to fill this emptiness.

But while most of the songs on the album are connected by this theme, there emerges a loosely-connected narrative told through multiple perspectives in non-chronological order. The narrative itself is not made clear (deliberately too, I think), involving a party that went too hard, resulting in multiple murders, two of which possibly by cruxifixion. It is in this loosely-connected narrative that The Hold Steady digs the deepest into the dark abyss of these people’s lives, a side of the band which was only hinted at, until now. I must applaud Craig Finn for willing to go to these really dark places, which only adds to the psychological complexity of the band’s music.

Interestingly, Craig Finn explores these dark places by way of Catholicism: the album is littered with Catholic images, whether it be the title of songs (“Both Crosses,” “Lord, I’m Discouraged”), or some seemingly throaway lines (“Yeah Sapphire/if I cross myself when I come/would you maybe receive me?”). The way Catholicism informs the album is not explicitly theological: after all, Craig Finn is not trying to do dogmatics. Rather, Catholicism is an undercurrent that courses through these songs, usually reflected in a peripheral fashion, as the characters ponders skepticism, miracles, and faith in a stream-of-conscious manner.

Furthermore, there is another sense in which the album could be broadly construed as religious: namely, its concern with and hope for redemption, not of a religious kind, but through music and love. This dual concern with both despair and redemption is reflected in the very first song “Constructive Summer”: as Craig Finns describes teenagers with nothing to look forward to in their lives, he also “raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer” (notice the religious title) and exhort, seemingly to himself, that “we could all be something bigger.”

The idea of redemption through music is most fully realized in the titular track of the album, “Stay Positive,” in which Craig Finn describes how good it feels to re-connect with old friends, and how “the Youth of Today and the early 7 Seconds/taught me some of life’s most valuble lessons.” And he’s hopeful that the next generation will find their music through which to find some meaning, no matter how shitty their lives will be, “because the kids at the shows they’ll have kids of their own/and the sing along songs will be our scriptures.” In this sense, music has replaced God, and redemption has been secularized.

The last song on the album, “Slapped Actress,” nicely embodies the spirit of the album as a whole. It is a meta-metaphor, since it takes its title from and explicitly refers to a John Cassavettes movie named Opening Night, which tells the story of an actress who must confronts her aging process and the loss of her beauty. This is a fairly oblique, convoluted way of restating the theme of the album: mortality and the loss of innocence. But then again, the album itself is oblique, with its central narrative told from fragmented perspectives and chronlogies, circling back on itself.

Yet in the end, the characters in the song finds some comfort, if not entirely happiness. The last five lines of the song say: “We’re the directors/Our hands will hold steady/I’ll be John Cassavettes./Let me know when you’re ready./Man, we make our own movies.” In those five lines, Finn acknowledges that yes, life can be shitty most of the time, that youth eventually ends, that innocence is lost; BUT, something like redemption can be found if you are with someone who can create your own life.

If life is truly a stage, and we but poor actors who strut upon the stage for an hour and are no more, then Craig Finn seems to say that that is okay, so long as we reconcile ourselves to our mortality, our lost youth, our inevitably dashed dreams. As an album-closer, this is about as good as it gets. I seriously hope the band ends its live set with this one.

So suffice to say, I really like this album. And it pretty much exemplifies why I still have faith in rock music. If The Hold Steady can craft a musically enjoyable, lyrically sophisticated album, then surely there is still something worth listening to.

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