"It doesn't have be pure, it doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be worth it."
My relationship with the music of The Hold Steady is one that has evolved since I first heard their music back in 2007. I’d originally heard their name mentioned in passing a couple of times before I chanced my arm with their debut when I saw it cheap, however the first time I heard Almost Killed Me’s opening track segue into its second that I realised that this band were going to be one that mattered to me. The Hold Steady’s particular brand of narrative heavy bar rock with a side helping of religious imagery was where I was at. Their second album, Separation Sunday, similarly impressed me despite (or perhaps because of) its relative lack of immediacy, and when I heard Boys and Girls in America, I placed The Hold Steady in that rare pantheon of acts where I would buy a new album on the day of release regardless of whether I had heard anything from it or not. Their next album, Stay Positive, was something of a crossover hit, largely on the back of the irresistible “Sequestered in Memphis”, and I was pleased to see their profile rise as a result. I saw them play live at The Leadmill. They were phenomenal.
Then things shifted a bit. Keyboard player Franz Nicolay, long the most musically sophisticated member left the band, resulting in their next two albums lacking a crucial dimension of their sound which I had always found so appealing. There was also a shift away from the recurring cast of characters that had regularly cropped up in Craig Finn’s lyrics. Neither Heaven is Whenever or Teeth Dreams were bad albums by any means, but I couldn’t escape the fact that it was the band’s first three albums that I would always keep returning to for my Hold Steady fix, and I wasn’t buying their albums on the day of release anymore. Then The Hold Steady went a bit quiet for a few years.
So here we are. Thrashing Thru the Passion is released five years since the last Hold Steady album, and in that time Craig Finn has released a sequence of solo albums which compliment and contrast his work with the band, with a little less focus on rocking. I quite enjoyed those. Oh, and Franz Nicolay is back as a full member of the band. Good times.
On first listen to Thrashing Thru the Passion, my initial impression was that it was a solid album given the band had been on a break, but little of it was really jumping out at me outside of lead single and opening track “Denver Haircut”. It was a fine album, but I have to admit I had been hoping for more. Maybe I’m getting a little more impatient in my advancing years as the march of time seems to quicken, but it seems I was somewhat hasty in my judgement. Subsequent listens to Thrashing Thru the Passion have started to reveal a Hold Steady album which I am more than happy to return to repeatedly as it gradually reveals its charms. Various parts of the album nod to the band’s past, with the previously named “Denver Haircut” sounding like it’s something that would have quite happily sat on any of their first three albums, just with a few more lyrical allusions to Metallica. Sure, there’s a touch more sonic polish, but this is the same bar band rocking that I embraced so readily back in 2007, they just have touch more production polish and utilise a few more horn arrangements, and hey, every act has to allow their sound to evolve over time.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hold Steady album if they weren’t wearing their deep love for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on their collective sleeves, and nowhere is this more obvious than the opening of “Traditional Village”, and it’s life affirming to hear. As a music obsessive its heart warming to hear a band so ready to display their enthusiasm for the music that inspired them, and The Hold Steady have always had that, even on the albums I was less enthusiastic about myself. Unlike those that say “We’re the best act since act X”, The Hold Steady have always took the more humble route by saying “We wouldn’t be the band we are without act X, whose music you should really check out”, and that’s always much more interesting and informative than just having a rampaging ego.
Thrashing Thru the Passion finds Craig Finn in fine lyrical form. Given that Finn has released a string of solo albums since the last Hold Steady album, you might have expected him to be running low on inspiration. The opposite seems to be true though, as the writing sessions for his various solo releases has evidently resulted in a whole load of ideas which worked better as Hold Steady numbers than Craig Finn solo numbers. A song like “Entertainment Crew” simply wouldn’t have worked on Finn’s solo albums, but it works just great as a Hold Steady number, in fact it’s one of Thrashing Thru the Passion’s highlights. Same goes for “TShirt Tux”. As a Craig Finn solo number, it probably wouldn’t have worked, but as a Hold Steady song, it makes absolute sense.
So, is Thrashing Thru the Passion a true return to former glories for The Hold Steady? Almost. As it happens “Confusion in the Marketplace” is just an okay track to finish the album on, rather than one that stands up to comparison to their killer album closers of the past. Long term Hold Steady fans might yearn for the more raw and unvarnished sound of their first couple of albums, but you can’t really blame the band for wanting to sonically move on from the rough and ready bar band sound of their earliest work. Thrashing Thru the Passion is the sound of The Hold Steady being The Hold Steady. The twin guitars rock, Finn’s gloriously conversational voice delivers lyrics which repeat the same line in succession where the song requires it, Nicolay’s keyboards lifts the band’s sound, and the horn arrangements compliment the songs rather than sounding just tacked on.
In short, The Hold Steady are back, and they’re still the best at what they do.