The first lines of Craig Finn’s first Great American Novel: “She says, ‘Always remember never to trust me’/ Ah, she said that the first night that she met me/ She said, ‘There’s gonna come a time/ When I’m gonna have to go/ With whoever’s gonna get me the highest.'” The characters that populate Separation Sunday, the Hold Steady’s second album — and on most days, their best — were introduced on 2004 debut album Almost Killed Me. So was the Hold Steady’s unmistakable sound, a peacocking Brooklyn bar-band makeover of the ranting, raving Midwest post-hardcore Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler pioneered back in Minnesota with their ’90s get-in-the-van band, Lifter Puller. And with Lifter Puller’s final album, Fiestas & Fiascos, Finn had already attempted an epic narrative concept album like this one. But Separation Sunday, which marked its tenth anniversary over the weekend, was when he and his bandmates became legends.
Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be a young person’s game, but it makes perfect sense that Finn didn’t peak until after he turned 30. He’s always been a storyteller as much as a lunatic frontman, and the tale he spins on Separation Sunday is the kind of writing that typically requires years of seasoning. The story spans many years — “Oh, to be 17 forever,” Finn reflects on “Stevie Nix,” and later, regarding the same character, “Oh, to be 33 forever” — and it covers even more miles, with Finn and his crew of skeezy cohorts roving the middle of the country in aimless pursuit of an especially trashy drugs/sex/rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. The central character is Holly, aka Hallelujah, a mixed-up Minnesota Catholic kid turned prostitute and junkie who skips CCD to roam the streets with questionable men and sleeps with soccer players along the banks of the Miss-iss-ipp-i Ri-ver. Later she gets baptized and maybe-literally comes back from the dead, and there’s plenty of other shady business in between — shady people, too, including Charlemagne the pimp, Gideon the skinhead, and Finn’s narrator character.
Even if you can’t piece together every last detail about what happens to Holly, Charlemagne, and the rest, you end up feeling like you’ve been swept into your new favorite movie. On “Charlemagne In Sweatpants,” Finn put it this way: “Do you want me to tell it like it’s boy meets girl and the rest is history? Yeah, or do you want it like a murder mystery? I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story.” That’s exactly right. He did so with wit, wisdom, and a genius eye for detail, delivering every last quotable couplet in such a harsh nasal bleat that you can hear the thick-framed glasses on his face even if you’ve never witnessed him on stage, manically whipping his arms around and yelling asides away from his mic. Basically every lyric is a masterpiece, from “Half-naked and three-quarters wasted, she was completely alone” to “She got screwed up by religion, she got screwed by soccer players.” As our own Tom Breihan wrote for Pitchfork upon Separation Sunday’s release, “He’s the poet laureate of the loading dock behind the mall where the runaway kids get together to sniff cheap coke at 5AM.”
Finn scripted a totally unique story from the timeless tropes of sex, violence, religion, drugs, the open road, and the American Dream, ending up with a sprawling underworld to drown in until you emerge, jolted full of life. It could have fallen flat, though, if not for his bandmates bolstering the narrative with all kinds of classic-rock bombast. Finn’s back-alley dealings and confession-booth revelations are soundtracked by jagged blooz riffs, monstrous power chords, oceanic organ swells, cavernous drum fills, saloon piano, harmonized guitar solos, saucy keyboard licks, and just about every other trick in the book. (There are also inaudible Franz Nicolay mustache twirls.) Just as Finn approached his story from unexpected angles with uncontainable vigor, the rest of the Hold Steady assembled their anthems in wildly unconventional fashion, deploying all the recognizable arena-rock building blocks while rarely settling into anything resembling verse-chorus-verse. It’s the triumphant and unwieldy soundtrack this story deserves.
In the 10 years since, the Hold Steady have continued to be incredibly good at what they do, further cementing their place in history with each subsequent LP and (especially) every life-affirming live show. They’ve pioneered a distinct breed of middle-aged Midwest rock ‘n’ roll, as massively influential as they are entirely inimitable. Their hypothetical greatest-hits record could stand up to any actual classic-rock band’s greatest-hits record. But while many of their ensuing albums are stacked with killer singles, it’s hard to imagine them ever topping Separation Sunday’s breathless swoop. This record was recognized as a classic from the beginning, and like Finn himself, it’s only getting better with age.
So: What’s your favorite Finn lyric here? When and where does this record transport you to? How does it stack up in your own personal Hold Steady album hierarchy? Let’s head to the comments and resurrect all those memories.