In “Constructive Summer,” the opening and arguably best track on Stay Positive, Craig Finn intones “Our psalms are sing-a-long songs.” True, the best ones really are anthems you want to be shouting while climbing water towers, toasting St. Joe Strummer (“I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher”), and drinking whiskey coke’s with no ice in double time — which is the “get hammered” summer plan Finn and cohorts lay out. In “Constructive Summer” he also tells us, “Let this be my annual reminder / that we can all be something bigger.” If there’s any major letdown on Stay Positive, it’s that there isn’t a bigger song in the collection. Sure, bands often front load, or give you their best first, but this song feels classic after only a few listens, setting the bar really high. When Craig says he thinks Strummer “might’ve been our only decent teacher,” he’s likely forgetting Blake Schwarzenbach, who he’s mentioned as an inspiration, and who haunts this tune in particular, for sure. It doesn’t help the Jawbreaker flashbacks to have gravelly Ben Nichols singing on “Sequestered In Memphis,” another of the album’s truly kick-ass tracks.
Those two gems are followed up by the harpsichord/piano-lined story time of “One For The Cutters.” It’s not a bad song, but the five minutes feel like 10. They write “sing-a-long songs.” This is not one of those. The narrative Finn weaves here isn’t interesting enough to stand on its own — it needs to be buttressed by “Sequestered In Memphis”‘s saxophone or a hooky guitar part. Instead, it sprawls. “When one townie falls in the forest can anyone hear it?” If they’ve made it that far into the song, maybe. Unfortunately, it’s followed by Stay Positive’s least interesting track, “Navy Sheets.”
Follow along at home on your tracklist and printout of the artwork, because we feel the need to go from song-to-song, story-to-story, or chapter-by-chapter. The next one, “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” is an example of the Hold Steady at their down-tempo best. Like, when they go for the Springsteen-style ballad. And dig that middle guitar solo. The dynamics in general. The closing line: “And I mostly just pray she don’t die.”
As if revitalized by “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” they pick up the steam here, rebounding from the early stumbles. “Yeah Sapphire” is a swaggering, piano-lined guitar-rock anthem: “I was a skeptic at first, but these miracles work.” Dripping in blood, death, and indulgences, “Both Crosses” is more ominous. Of course, we’ve all heard the Youth of Today and (early) 7 Seconds-referencing title track. It’s a definite highlight, as is “Magazines,” which has Nichols contributing an excellently torn-throat chorus: “Magazines and daddy issues / I know you’re pretty pissed, I hope you still let me kiss you.” God bless. “Joke About Jamaica” feels like a nice, more spacious reprise of “Stay Positive” (“The boys are getting younger and the bands are getting louder,” “the punks, the skins, the greaser guys,” “I know it sounds repetitive,” etc.) and the crunchy, dynamic “Slapped Actress” is a powerful closer. Finn plays the part of John Cassavetes and his group of singers play the part of adding a rollicking chorus to the end of this thing, a great way to exit.
Finn’s said they weren’t going for another Boys And Girls In America or Separation Sunday with Stay Positive. In some ways, we miss the interconnectedness. In other ways, though, it makes it easier to tease the tracks out, treating them as the stand-alone beer-soaked anthems or rock-n-roll downers they’ve always been, regardless of all that talk about Berryman and Kerouac. Though, come to think of it, he does mention blood a lot and there are more than a few implied age spots and wrinkles. Time to get out the notebooks and clue-in more deeply on the lyrics.
Stay Positive is out 7/14 in the UK via Rough Trade and 7/15 in the US via Vagrant.