There are two different ways to experience a Hold Steady album for the first time. There is, of course, the first time you throw the album on, the first time you let the riffs reverberate around in your ribcage for a couple of minutes and then blur into the background while you’re driving or doing internet stuff or whatever. Maybe a sudden, blazing guitar solo will grab your ear for a minute. Maybe a stray lyric will come along and half-wallop you. But it’ll sound something like a rock album, which it basically is. But the second way to hear it with the lyric sheet unfolded in front of you, reading along with Craig Finn’s words while he’s half-singing them. That second way of doing things is key, and if you don’t do it, you won’t get the full effect. That’s where “oh hey, this is a cool album” becomes “holy fuck, this might be a masterpiece.” (You can, of course, listen to the album for the first time with the lyrics on hand, but I don’t recommend it; it’s too overwhelming.) For all the talk of Springsteen influence that follows this band around like a tangy smell, Finn, when you check the lyric sheet, is really more Denis Johnson. With the Hold Steady, he’s now made six albums that take place in squalid, scary, exhilarating corners of Midwestern cities, describing sketchy situations in all their very real terror but also being sure to point out how euphorically fun those situations can be. It’s really a titanic achievement, and even if the band’s last album, 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever, was a bit lacking in vigor, it still had that amazing lyrical riff about going to see Youth Of Today at the 7th Street Entry, as well as a pile of other concrete, evocative details. Maybe it wasn’t a great rock album, but it was powerful storytelling. And so I’m happy to report that Teeth Dreams, the band’s new one, is, once again, powerful storytelling. And I’m even happier to report that it’s a great rock album.
Let’s talk about the rock-album side of things first. The Hold Steady started as a shits-and-giggles classic-rock cover band — Finn and Tad Kubler, former bandmates in the great Minneapolis postpunkers Lifter Puller blowing off steam and reconnecting with the idea of music after they’d both moved to New York and settled into day-job life. But since their first album, they’ve grown sharper and more polished, sounding less and less like a bar cover band and more and more like the arena-rock behemoths that those bands would cover. That hit critical mass with Heaven Is Whenever, which had heavy layers of sheen that didn’t seem to fit this band at all. That’s still an issue on Teeth Dreams, but it’s less of one. This time around the band worked with producer Nick Raskulinecz, a corporate-rock veteran who’s worked with people like the Foo Fighters and Evanescence. And on the album’s faster songs in particular, the guitars sound a bit more processed and compressed than I might like. But Raskulinecz has also done a nice job layering the band’s sounds, capturing all the different things that the different band members are playing. Meanwhile, the band has finally adjusted completely to the loss of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who left the band suddenly and unexpectedly in 2010.
They’ve replaced him, sort of, with second guitarist Steve Selvidge. Selvidge is a flashier and less emotive player than Kubler, but the two guitarists have a certain chemistry, and they’ve found ways to mesh their styles that go way beyond “OK, you take the next solo.” And while Finn is never going to be the sort of singer who would do damage on The Voice, his melodic range and confidence have grown, and you can’t really describe his vocal style anymore as “guy who wanders up to you at the gas station and asks for some money because his car broke down and he needs to get home, or that’s what he says anyway.” And even if the faster songs have a slicked-up edge that doesn’t always help them, the band does find a richer, deeper sound on the ballads. And that’s good, because With Teeth has a lot of ballads, and they all rule.
We should talk for a minute about power ballads. The Hold Steady are better-known for their fiery rave-ups, and that makes sense, since they have a ton of them, and since they’re the motor for the band’s sweaty, drunken, wonderful live shows. But when the band slows down and goes for pathos, they’ve come up with some of their greatest moments: “Certain Songs,” “First Night,” “Lord, I’m Discouraged.” And there are a couple of songs on Teeth Dreams that absolutely belong on that list. There’s “The Ambassador,” a stately, organ-imbued weeper so pretty that it takes a couple of listens to hear the acid humor in Finn’s lyrics: “Your friend at the tire shop / He keeps talking about some rock / Like he wants something hard to hit his head on.” There’s album closer “Oaks,” which sprawls over nine elegiac moments and goes through a ton of different movements and ideas, like it’s this band’s version of “Estranged.” And then there’s “Almost Everything,” the showstopper and the best song here — two acoustic guitars intricately wrapping themselves around each other while Finn bluesily searches for dirtbag transcendence. The song absolutely slays me, partly because it’s amazing to hear the band tapping so deeply and assuredly into its quiet sign and partly because some of the lyrics are so tangible and intense that they illustrate, with agonizing clarity, exactly why Finn’s characters are OK living in such sad and dangerous circumstances. I’m talking about this passage especially: “Sat in the back of the theater, just drinking and talking / About movies and Krishna and hardcore and Jesus and joy.” I hear those words and want to cry. I’ve had nights like that, never have them anymore, and I know why nights like that can feel like pure euphoria even when you know full well that the way you’re living can’t sustain itself. In the next verse, Finn’s narrator checks into a hospital, only to be let loose once again, back into a world where nothing quite feels real.
Hospitals come up a lot in Finn’s lyrics this time. So does the very idea of being terrified for your life. Opener and first single “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” it turns out, is a song in which the narrator is telling a friend, “Oh hey, I’ve got this group of friends, they’re a skinhead gang, they’re always in and out of prison, but it’s all going to be OK. I think. I hope.” Finn’s got this way of laying out a bunch of deeply fearful possible scenarios, and the emotional reactions to those scenarios, with just a few well-placed words: “I guess Fisher came out of St. Cloud with a little ideology / Some new way of thinking, man / A view to the future / Jesus, this might be a mess.” “The Only Thing” is a character sketch built out of a heartbreaking sort of empathy: “She’s been sleeping in a storage space by the airport / The only thing she talks about is TV.” “Big Cigs” lays out an unhealthy crush with brutal specificity: “Some nights, she’s a scientist / She pulls me into experiments / Squeezes hard and charts the forward progress.” I could honestly spend all day just quoting his lyrics; they’re things to be savored. Teeth Dreams isn’t like previous Hold Steady albums, with their recurring characters and their grand overarching narratives. Nothing happens in Ybor City. Instead, it’s Finn laying out a set of situations, evoking the feeling of those spaces in a few quick strokes, and letting the bad vibes accumulate without ever showing the bad shit crashing down. But that central tension within the Hold Steady’s music — the soaring, triumphant music combined with the lyrical idea that any perceived triumph is a sad temporary sham — is strong in Teeth Dreams. I don’t think it’s the best Hold Steady album, and I’m not really sure where it fits in the grand scheme of the band’s catalog. But it’s a welcome indication that the Hold Steady is back to being one of our great working rock bands, a force that we should not take for granted.
Teeth Dreams is out 3/25 on Washington Square.