The Hold Steady / Stay Positive: "Let's clutch and kiss and sing and shake, tonight let's try to levitate"
The boys were sweet and musical
The laser lights looked mystical
. . . Messed up still felt magical"
The more I listen to The Hold Steady, the more I think they might have what it takes to save rock & roll from crushing heartlessness, unoriginal pallor, and detached apathy. You might have noticed that people tend to fall diametrically on one side or the other of the Hold Steady spectrum. My friend Barber once described lead singer Craig Finn as "a crazy inebriated prophet, ear tuned to the roar, shouting out real-life scripture over the ocean of noise of society or a really loud bar band." Yet I have other friends who violently object to the whole concept whenever I broach it. The Hold Steady must be something you either get --and get hard-- or don't. On this new album especially, I find it difficult to understand the latter.
On their fourth studio album Stay Positive (which drops in physical form July 15th) these five guys from Minneapolis stretch their songwriting out down new roads, and as always everything feels pretty epic and massive. Pressed up against gorgeously grand and subversively hopeful songs, Finn weaves complex stories of lust and confusion, of cutting and car crashes, of oracles and angels.
You can get an accurate impression of the feelings contained on Stay Positive from the cover and superb inner album art. Despite the muddy ground and the nauseatingly yellow sky with all the color bled out, there is always the potential for something exciting to happen tonight, for some urgency to swoop down and make you feel alive for forty-five minutes. The feeling of continuity that connects all of the Hold Steady's albums is present here, through serial characters like Holly --who has been in the hospital, shaky but still trying to shake it, and now the girl who won't say hi to him-- and also through recurrent themes that perennially crop up to make a Hold Steady song what it is. The landscape is desolate, but the kids in the songs still yearn.
Stay Positive is also their album of bleeding and miracles -- a fitting dichotomy for a band that plumbs both the gritty violent parts of our psyche as well as the redemption. On one of the album's strongest tracks, Finn calls a girl named Sapphire (who possesses some hallucinogenic visionary abilities) and begs, "I know you said don't call until I'm clean . . . but I'm not drunk, I'm cut. I'm gushing blood, and I need someone to come and pick me up." I find something in the desperation of how Finn wrenches and pleads out that line that reverberates throughout the album. There's talk of crucifixion, visions, and miracles, and later he sings "Don't mention bloodshed, don't tell them it hurts, don't say we saw angels, they'll take us straight to the church." Make no mistake, this is an album of the mud and the blood and the beer, but along with that comes some old-fashioned revival-style hallelujah.
Musically, Stay Positive is as richly dense as anything they've done. I always find a sort of deliverance in the crashing piano cadences and expansive guitar solos of the Hold Steady, even as the lyrics detail another sad night, another desperate move. J Mascis guests stars (playing banjo on "Both Crosses"), as do Ben Nichols of Lucero and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers (on backing vocals in a few songs). This is an album I am obviously enjoying immensely through the throes of this sweltering summer.
LISTEN: Sequestered In Memphis & Lord I'm Discouraged (stream)
NEW CONTEST: Thanks to the good folks at Vagrant, I have Hold Steady largess to scatter upon ye lucky masses like manna from the heavens.
Three lucky winners will win the Stay Positive CD (with the 3 bonus tracks on it, I think) and two of you will be spinning the black circle with the vinyl LP. The vinyl is 160 gram (black color), gatefold, and will feature one bonus track “Ask Her For The Adderall.”
Please leave me a comment indicating which format you are entering for, and since there are so many good ones to choose from, let's talk about favorite Hold Steady lyrics.
Walk away with these lines from the new album -- they leave you with that ache:
"Girls didn't seem so difficult
Boys didn't seem so typical
It was all warm and white and wonderful
We were all invincible
We were wasps with new wings
Now we're bugs in the jar
We were hot soft and pure
Now we're scratched up in scars."
POSTSCRIPT OF OLD CONTEST BUSINESS: The Joe Strummer prize pack garnered some of the very best comments yet left on Fuel/Friends. From lighting Joe's cigarette (a tale I verified with the cool commenter - oh, to have a lighter just when Joe Strummer fumbles for one outside a Vegas hotel) to talking to him backstage, wracked with nervous anticipation, you gotta go read all the great tales. Because I'm soft, I went with a randomly-selected winner: James from Brooklyn. Congrats! Let me know where to send it.