It kicks off with a riff that screams “Rock and roll!”, and you’re either in or out. If you’re not sure who this is, then welcome to the world to the righteous rock and roll world of the Hold Steady, where choruses are singalong, riffs are massive, keyboard players are moustachioed, and narrative lyrics are laden with catholic imagery viewed from a barstool.
I must admit, when I first heard Stay Positive on its release a decade ago, I found it a difficult beast to tame, but if the passage of time teaches us anything, it’s that patience can be its own reward. With three albums of Springsteen, Newman and Replacements-indebted rock and roll under their belts, the Hold Steady were riding the crest of a wave when they released Stay Positive. Previous album had seem them connect with an audience who were delighted to realise that their first two albums were just as good, embracing Craig Finn’s lyrics and the band’s shamelessly bar-rocking approach.
The opening double punch of “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis” confirms that on Stay Positive The Holy Steady remain faithful to their riff rocking roots, while “One for the Cutters” is a more moody and complex number featuring Franz Nicolay playing what sounds like a harpsichord. This feeling of discomfort crops up frequently throughout the rest of the album, from the wonky synth line through “Navy Sheets”, to the lyrics exploring moral ambiguity, and coming to a head with closer “Slapped Actress”, a song which has only gained in discomfort in the decade since Stay Positive’s release.
Stay Positive is an album which is fuelled by a gritty and sometimes uncomfortable blend of nostalgic regret and optimism for the future. The classic rock riffing remains in place (check out the cheeky Manfred Mann’s Earth Band lift midway through “Lord, I’m Discouraged”), as do the fantastic narrative lyrics, but perhaps more than the previous Hold Steady albums, Stay Positive is an album of gaining maturity in the face of adversity, of acknowledging mistakes and regrets while looking forward. While the trio of characters that were establish on The Hold Steady’s previous albums, Holly, Gideon and Charlamagne, are not mentioned by name, their spirit seeps through Stay Positive.
Something which is particularly striking throughout Stay Positive is Craig Finn’s return to the religious imagery of Separation Sunday. While Stay Positive is not as strong and coherent a statement as Separation Sunday, it’s still a solid and satisfying album which seems perfectly in balance with itself throughout – it’s interesting to note that while the three bonus tracks on the early editions of Stay Positive are a welcome addition to the main course, they really wouldn’t have fit anywhere upon the main body of the album.
It’s this restraint that pretty much seals the deal for me with Stay Positive. Almost any other band whose careers are on the rise would have thrown as much material together as possible, but The Hold Steady are one of the few rock and roll bands that are mature enough to know when enough is enough.