First, a couple of lyrics (and God knows, there are plenty to quote on the Hold Steady’s fourth album). From the opening song, “Constructive Summer”: “Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.” From the last song, “Slapped Actress”, repeated by Craig Finn while the music swells and a rabble choir add “woah-oh”s: “Man, we make our own movies.”
I’ve spent the weekend, amongst other things, bewitched by “Stay Positive”, and a few details are starting to come into focus. On the second play, it becomes apparent that this is another superb and compelling album by The Hold Steady, one whose complexity and anthemic punch might yet surpass “Boys And Girls In America”. An initial hunch that this is a record about being in a band in your late thirties – a hunch backed up by some of Finn’s early pronouncements about the album – proves to be only partially true. “Stay Positive” is a whole lot more complicated than that.
As far as I can tell this morning, “Stay Positive” is a series of fragmented narratives that revisit old characters (though Holly and Charlemagne, for two, are never named) and generate new plots, involving one or maybe two murders, visions of the Virgin Mary, fights in the woods, something about crucifixions and so on. Fans of the first two Hold Steady albums will be pleased to see that Catholicism is forcibly back on Finn’s agenda, tangled up inexorably with sex: “If I cross myself when I come would you maybe receive me?” he pleads in “Yeah Sapphire”.
But the protagonists sometimes seem a bit older than they were. People are dying, people are starting to think they can be “something bigger”. There’s a suspicion, in “Joke About Jamaica”, that there are more dignified things to do with a life than hang around rock bands when you’re no longer the youngest ones on the scene. And juxtaposed with this, there’s Finn trying to find dignity in actually being in a band at 37, finally finding success at an age when most aspiring bands have given up trying. “The kids at our shows will have kids of their own,” he notes in the title track, “The singalong songs will be our scriptures.”
Consequently, it’s possible to pick multiple paths through this fascinating record, as Finn artfully mixes up the grimy narratives; the optimism, nostalgia and pathos; the religious, sexual and rock’n’roll documentary imagery. You sense, too, that he’s grappling with the obligation to be ‘real’ and to provide a great performance, to tell stories that have meaning but that aren’t always in some sense truthful – hence the denouement when he talks about making movies, shortly after noting, “Some nights it’s entertainment and some other nights it’s just work.”
I could write about this all day, and still struggle to unpick Finn’s thinking entirely. But anyway, it’s obviously not just the lyrics that make “Stay Positive” so rich. The anthems are bigger, the range wider, the cascading E-Street piano lines more prevalent and vivid. “Constructive Summer” might reference “St Joe Strummer”, but its clearest antecedents seem to be Husker Du and REM circa “Little America”. “Sequestered In Memphis” has a trumpet-led chorus that is the catchiest thing they’ve ever written.
The much-vaunted musical departures begin with “One For The Cutters”, kicked off by a florid harpsichord line, but more striking is “Navy Sheets”, where a niggling synth hook cuts through a dense spiel that harks back to “Separation Sunday”. Patterson Hood guests on this one, but the influence of The Drive-By Truckers seems to hover over “Both Crosses”, a bloodshot and twanging meditation that seems kin to something from “The Dirty South”.
My favourite this morning is “Joke About Jamaica”, something of a key to the meaning of the whole album I think, with flurries of grand piano and stuttery Hammond tracking Finn in a way that reminds me a lot of Elvis Costello & The Attractions circa “Trust” – “Clubland” specifically, perhaps. Eventually, the grandest and most preposterous of Tad Kubler’s mighty solos turns into a squalling talkbox workout.
And once “Slapped Actress” finishes off, “back in Ybor City again”, with its stirring chorale, it’s clear that The Hold Steady have made another record that is at once immediate and reflective, that can provide massive live celebrations and intimate close study. There’s a lot to get your teeth into here, trust me. . .