At a time when most major recording artists release albums at two- or three-year intervals, Brooklyn's Hold Steady have put out six albums (including the live 2009 A Positive Rage) in the seven years since their 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me. But in addition to being one of the most prolific rock bands of the past several years, they've also been one of the best.
Formed by singer and ace songwriter Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler, who had paired in the late-'90s Minneapolis cult band Lifter Puller, and with drummer Bobby Drake and bassist Galen Polivka as the other constants, the Hold Steady established an initial, distinctive style marked by lyrically dense songs packed with allusions (to religion, rock music, literature, pop culture, Finn's own current band and back catalog), hip-hop-style rhyme for rhyme's sake, intentionally corny puns, killer one-liners, and, crucially, an overarching narrative that extended across the band's first three albums.
Where Lifter Puller's music was a fictionalization of the present — a hard-boiled tour of the seedy, druggy nightclub culture hard for professional rock musicians to avoid — the Hold Steady's music was largely a fictionalization of memories from Finn's past, a world of punk clubs and punk kids whose stories the band told with an increasingly avuncular compassion and a hopeful kind of romanticism.
With Almost Killed Me, the band played at being just another bar band. In reality, they were nothing of the sort. Finn wasn't so much a singer as a presence, part stand-up comic, part street-corner ranter, part rock singer as preacher. The band didn't seem to play with him so much as off him, spinning a series of juicy knock-off classic-rock riffs. This was a thrill to most Lifter Puller fans, but Finn's peculiar delivery proved to be a deal-breaker for many listeners, and in the years since, the band has evolved into something approaching a more conventional rock band.
Where Almost Killed Me was self-consciously a bar-band record, the following Separation Sunday tackled more expansive and more romantic classic-rock influences, most notably Bruce Springsteen but also such Boss-lite figures as Billy Joel, Meatloaf, Bob Seger, and Thin Lizzy. This broader sound was put to the service of a chronologically complex, intellectually addictive, and emotionally engrossing concept album about a Catholic high school girl sucked down a drug-culture rabbit hole and onto a 16-year, cross-country journey back to salvation, with Sopranos-worthy subplots. The twisty good-girl-gone-bad (and good again) narrative played like a rock-and-religion version of Mulholland Dr., albeit with a much happier ending.
Tellingly, the band's audiences swelled with 2006's Boys and Girls in America, where songs were more self-contained with normal verse-chorus-verse structures, and Finn, for the first time, attempted something like actual singing. The songs were set in the same subcultural milieu as on Almost Killed Me and, especially, Separation Sunday, but rather than intricate conceptualism, Boys and Girls in America was a theme album, a collection of love songs, Craig Finn-style.
If Boys and Girls in America seemed to be the final transformation of the Hold Steady from a great genre-unto-themselves band into a great borderline-conventional rock band, 2008's Stay Positive suggested the band was able to move in still new directions. Though Stay Positive rooted the band's perspective more than ever in the experiences and ethical lessons of Finn's punk/hardcore formative years, it also pushed into totally new songwriting territory: "Sequestered in Memphis" was a police-procedural snapshot, an interrogation picked up midstream. "One for the Cutters" was a college-town tale that referenced the film Breaking Away. "Navy Sheets" seemed to be set at a teen summer camp. Paired with "Magazines" and "Lord I'm Discouraged" — both of which felt much more contemporary in their inspiration — the album suggested the band was finding a way to apply its established musical and lyrical style toward new kinds of material.
In that context, this year's Heaven Is Whenever is the first Hold Steady album that circles back rather than pushes forward, sounding something like a softer, moodier companion piece to Boys and Girls in America. Back are the Minneapolis locations (Hennepin Avenue, the 7th Street Entry), intensely remembered high-school hardcore shows ("Barely Breathing"), lost girls ("Hurricane J"), fan-centric rock references ("Rock Problems" has Jim Carroll and Cheap Trick; "We Can Get Together" one-ups it with Heavenly, Hüsker Dü, and Pavement), and lines and images repeated from previous records ("nodding off in matinees," "we were bored so we started a band," trash bins, ice machines, little lambs).
All of these elements have been crucial to the pleasure the band provides, and they are again here. Certainly, Heaven Is Whenever is smarter and more deeply felt than all but a few rock albums I've heard this year. But, for the first time, the band seems to be exhausting now-familiar territory. The band's previous two records have opened with master statements, and the lovely "The Sweet Part of the City," which begins with a rootsy slide-guitar flourish that suggests the Rolling Stones or early Rod Stewart more than straight blues, tries to play the same role, its closing "We'd like to play for you/pray for you" refrain returning to the band's oft-explored rock fandom/religion comparison. On Heaven Is Whenever, the album title is completed by the song title "We Can Get Together," which is then followed with: "Sit down on your floor and listen to your records."
But if Heaven Is Whenever circles back lyrically, it continues on the same forward trajectory musically, E Street Band-style keyboard man Franz Nicolay and Kubler continuing to evolve from noisy classic-rock riffs into more expansive territory. But chances are good that onstage even the new material will have a stronger rock edge, courtesy, in part, of a new addition who will be familiar to most local clubgoers: Memphis guitarist Steve Selvidge (Big Ass Truck, Secret Service), who joined the band as a touring member earlier this year.
The Hold Steady with the Whigs
Sunday, July 11th
9 p.m., $20