The Hold Steady’s arrived at an interesting moment in the progression of their smart-guy bar rock. As we’ve mentioned, album five is the first since the departure of Franz Nicolay, the one member you’d assume was a rock star if you passed the guys on the street. Tad Kubler is taking care of the keyboards in Nicolay’s absence. As a result, the sound is more spacious, less manic, and Heaven Is Whenever finds the guys trying out a less stadium-straddling sound. Does that mean they’re less fun? Sometimes. They aren’t wandering too far from the established template, but it feels like a collection that’ll divide the diehards (and apologists) from the casual listeners.
Just to get it out there: We miss the Springsteen trills. On the positive side, you can mull Craig Finn’s lyrics with less distractions. Per usual, he digs into relationships, assorted rock ’n’ roll problems, and makes well-timed nostalgic (Youth Of Today/Shelter, Hüsker Dü, Pavement, Heavenly, Minnesota) and beer-soaked references in the lives of the characters he memorializes/creates.
Finn has always dug into depression and bummed out losers, but on the whole Heaven is more downcast (and/or hushed) than past outings. See, for instance, the slide guitar and acoustic twang of opener “The Sweet Part of the City,” which after tales of various of cities (mostly the parts with bars and restaurants), works as a self-referential on-the-road introduction: “We were bored so we started a band / We like to play for you.” It’s pretty, but stays downcast. The next track, “Soft In The Center,” is more a rocker. Like a number of Heaven’s tracks, Franz’s vocal parts are replaces by a smooth male/female choir. The guitars have lift (and, at times, roar). It’s about girls. Not a major Hold Steady song, but it hits its marks.
Through a pretty aggressive pre-release promo campaign, you’ve also already heard a significant part of the collection. “Soft In The Center” is followed by one of those familiar standouts, “The Weekenders,” a dynamic HS anthem that finds Finn focusing on a heavy metal bar, the reservoir, half-remembered conversations, and some great burns: “She said ‘The theme of this party’s the industrial age’ / And you came in dressed as a train wreck.” This highlight is, in turn, followed by the album’s biggest dud, “The Smidge.” There’s a lot not to like about it: The soulless cowbell, the awkward rhythm, and Finn stepping out of his comfort zone to talk about how “When we lie to each other / We do it through computers,” etc. After the soaring “The Weekenders,” it sucks the air out of the room (though its noisier choruses aren’t all that bad). Before the listener strays too far we get another familiar standout, “Rock Problems.” Reminder: “Rock Problems” are “First-World Problems,” only more specific…
In most cases, the songs we’ve already heard feature the best bits, but “We Can Get Together” is a fun game of rock trivia (with heart). Like watching the “New Slang” video the first time. You get Pavement’s “Heaven Is A Truck,” Heavenly’s “pure and simple love,” Meatloaf, Hüsker Dü, Psychedelic Furs (“Heaven is the hole of the heart…”), Utopia’s “Love Is The Answer,” etc, but it’s the love story that matters most: “Heaven is whenever / We can get together/ Sit down on your floor / And listen to your records.” These lines are delivered with a sighing “shine down on us all” gospel-meets-earth-angel mini-choir. Check plus.
Next we get “Hurricane J,” that emotional anthem about a girl who’s “gonna crash into the harbor this summer.” (It’s one that would’ve fit well on Stay Positive, for sure.) Then comes another trivia contest, but “Barely Breathing”’s focused on hardcore not the indie rock. In it, as we heard on Stay Positive, Finn’s reminiscing about audiences back in the day and complaining that these days “the kids are all distracted” and are “a distraction.” That said, it’s not all the present: He also goes back to 1988 to his first Youth Of Today show and then looks forward to Ray Capo’s post-Youth Krishna-core band Shelter and the scene around it — a scene that indeed seemed ridiculous, even in the early ’90s. It’s delivered like some sort of jazzy cabaret package complete with clarinets. Not a great song, but fun for those of us who’ve had the same sort of disillusionment and enjoy counting the references.
“Our Whole Lives” drifts back to the bar-rock thing with dense instrumentation (great guitar and brass section overlaps). The message? In part: “We’re good guys, but we can’t be good every night / We’re good guys but we can’t be good our whole lives … Father I have sinned, and I want to do it all again tonight.” It has a throwback feel to it — you may want to do “The E Street Shuffle” — but isn’t one of their stronger tracks in this vein. (How about another “Constructive Summer”?)
Kubler has spoken about the influence of cinematic composers on Heaven Is Whenever. You get that in the darker, creepier, blood-sucking 7-minute closer “A Slight Discomfort.” The layered martial drums, synths, elegant distortion, and other sounds that emerge for its swirling, swelling instrumental finale are a good way to exit Heaven. They might point toward a newer direction for the band. Or maybe it’s just supposed to play off the intro-style “The Sweet Part of the City.” Either way, it shows them coming up with a way to elevate things successfully outside their usual approach(es).
Heaven isn’t a bad album, but it’s also not a great album. (It’s OK to be disappointed.) There are a few standouts, some mediocre material, a dud. It often feels like the work of a band in transition — one that hits a stride here/there but is also running in place. So, yeah, maybe things aren’t quite as fun with one less mustache.