The amount of tolerance you’ve built up for the Hold Steady is most likely directly proportional to the amount of tolerance you still have left for the archetype of the Rock Nerd as it came of age in the 90s: male, college educated and a little bit bumbling — the obsessive record collector with an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history, the guy with all the band shirts, the guy who labored over mixtapes in lieu of being able to express emotions like a regular person, the guy who could never quite get the girl because he’d already become her best friend; the college radio DJ, the tireless booster of vinyl as the preferred audio format.
Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn has been courting that guy for the duration of his band’s career, with four full-lengths that have as their primary subject matter what is essentially a series of coming-of-age stories about teenagers in the throes of the punk rock scene — for many, including Finn’s characters and Finn himself, a brief but important stop on the road to what they will later become — set in suburbs and cities that may as well be nameless, even though they never are. He preys on nostalgia for something which has only been gone for a few years, but which, in the wake of the internet, seems like a relict of a long gone era. It’s an approach that’s fraught with problems, from the appearance of being a one-trick pony to the ongoing bout with gooey sentimentality. Unless, of course, you’re “that guy.”
So let’s say that you are. With the release of Stay Positive, Finn has done more to speak to you than probably any artist since your (and his) beloved Replacements, writing arena-rock anthem after arena-rock anthem about misfits and fuck-ups whose search for solace leads them to others just like them. Take album opener ‘Constructive Summer’, which is among the most undeniably invigorating work the band’s ever done, and functions as an immediate call to arms. “We’re gonna build something this summer,” Finn assures repeatedly, before quieting things down for the most plainly eloquent lines he’s ever written:
I went to your schools, I did my detention/But the walls were so gray I couldn’t pay attention/I read your gospel, it moved me to tears/But I couldn’t find the hate and I couldn’t find the fear./I met your savior, I knelt at his feet/But he took my ten bucks and he went down the street./I tried to believe all the things that you said/But my friends are all dying or already dead.
Then, with a move that will warm the heart of jaded rock nerds everywhere, he continues, “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been our only decent teacher.”
The rest of the record carries on pretty much as one would expect. Working again with Boys and Girls in America producer John Agnello, the band sounds fuller than they did on earlier recordings. Extra layers have been added to the mix — strings here, a harpsichord there — serving to address the complaint that their songs have always sorta sounded the same. They also serve to intensify the Springsteen similarities people have been yelling about for years, if only in that the songs seem to be getting bigger and bigger in their sentiment, more cut out for actual arenas than most of what’s currently being performed in them.
The subject matter has remained fairly consistent. In ‘Sequestered in Memphis’, a dude gets tangled up with a woman about whom he says, “In bar-light, she looked alright, in daylight, she looked desperate.” ‘Lord, I’m Discouraged’ tells the story of a girl who’s disappeared from the scene and shows up either messed up on drugs or badly beaten. ‘Both Crosses’ is a slow, mostly acoustic track featuring the same kind of dark religious imagery that made up so much of Separation Sunday.
‘Magazines’, about a girl who drinks too much and has guys falling all over her, marks a subtle but important shift in how women have been portrayed in Finn’s lyrics. She’s presented as a woman of stature, albeit one with a solid set of emotional issues, in spite of which she comes off sounding far less pathetic than the men chasing her. It stands in stark contrast to ‘Joke About Jamaica’, where a girl, possibly a groupie, is gently mocked for not knowing how to pronounce the Led Zeppelin song ‘D’yer Ma’ker’, driving home the idea of the Hold Steady, and the rock world in general, as a ruthless, backward-looking boys club. At the same time, though, Finn takes current incarnations of both sides to task, lamenting the loss of adolescent excitement and newness when he sings, “The girls didn’t seem so difficult/The boys didn’t seem so typical.” It’s offensive, possibly, but when no one comes out looking good, exactly, it’s a whole lot easier to swallow.
Unless it’s not. There has always been something decidedly, grotesquely rockist about the Hold Steady, a fetishization of antiquated rock and roll ideals that has been complained about by music critics everywhere, and in some ways, it’s even more front-and-center on Stay Positive. The guitar solos are even bigger than they were before, and to make matters worse, they feature almost nothing in the way of actual melody, rather a showy, overlong display of standard classic rock shredding. They also use a talk box at one point, which, frankly, is unforgivable. And then there’s the possibility — and this is where a lot of the band’s criticism stems from, I think — that you don’t share the experiences of Finn or his characters. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying the album’s title track at face value, not with lines like, “Most kids give me credit for being down with it when it was back in the day, back when things were way different/When the Youth of Today and the early 7 Seconds taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons.” It’s a nod to the power of two 80s hardcore bands that is ultimately meaningless if you’re not familiar with them. Finn, of course, would argue that you should be. And this is just a small example, really. Finn is writing character studies when it comes down to it, and ultimately, the idea that one has to have an intimate understanding of those characters beforehand rather than learning about them through the material is flawed.
At the end of the day, though, you can’t really escape the fact that this very specific type of nostalgia is what makes the Hold Steady what they are, which is to say one of the most inspiring, feel-good bands around for a whole lot of people: They appeal to so many of their fans not because they’re singing about them, exactly, but because they’re singing about who they used to be, which, as the lyrics indicate, wasn’t always pretty. There were drugs, there was a little too much booze, there was the questioning and often the eventual abandonment of the faith you were brought into, and there was a lot of uncertainty about where you were supposed to fit in, both at the time and in the future. What the Hold Steady, and the thousands of fans who sing along with them every night at their shows, or every weekend at barbecues with their friends, are celebrating is that they came out on the other side, better off for all the shit they went through earlier in life, and in some sad, fucked up adult kind of way, actually sort of miss. They miss the days before they had to get a babysitter if they want to go out to dinner, or before they’d be a mess the following day at work if they weren’t in bed by midnight. But they’re also thankful that, just like in the old days, they’re still able to turn to a rock band when they most need to feel like someone’s actually talking to them, like someone knows they still even exist: As Craig Finn sings the line “Let this be our annual reminder that we can all be something bigger” during ‘Constructive Summer’ you can hear the collective sigh of relief from a generation of music fans who’ve just found out that rock and roll does, in fact, still have all the answers.