To a certain extent they had no choice, of course: the departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay forced them to come up with new ways to fill the considerable space that was formerly occupied by his keyboards or his maniacal, band-defining background vocals. And at first, on album-opener "The Sweet Part of the City," it seems like they've quite reasonably settled on Beggars Banquet-style country-rock, with the rickety slide guitar of the intro immediately compelling you to consider just how great, if admittedly somewhat predictable, it would be if they'd stick with it. They don't, though, and by the next track, "Soft in the Center," as well as on much of the rest of the record, it's all palm-muted guitars and big, airy choruses. "The Smidge," "The Weekenders," "Rock Problems" and "Our Whole Lives" all move along at roughly the same pace, with the same straightforward, guitar-heavy approach. None of it's bad (ok, "Rock Problems" is actually really bad), but it feels at best like they're walking in place, and at worst like a step back. Rather than filling in any of the holes caused by Nicolay's absence, they just turned the volume up on everything else in hopes that you wouldn't even notice the holes were there in the first place. It occasionally works, but more often than not, it makes it hard to remember what song you're listening to.
In fairness, the uninspired arrangements would be forgivable if, on the whole, the album's lyrics weren't also somewhat disappointing. Again, go back to "The Sweet Part of the City," where it looks like they might be on to something. With its refrain of "We were living in the sweet part of the city/ The parts with the bars and restaurants," the narrator is looking back on a time that, for once, didn't almost kill him and didn't even seem particularly sketchy or heavy or whatever, like everything else Finn's always singing about. It's a misty-eyed remembrance of days gone by, and for once, those days are actually remembered as better than the ones currently being experienced. It's the most accurate portrait of aging he's ever written. It's heartbreaking in a way, yes, but also not really such a big deal—the type of nostalgia that ends not in a messy midlife crisis, but with the simultaneous cracking of a brief smile and another beer.
Jump forward to "The Weekenders," though, and he's back to talking about the OTB (and I assume the girl from "Chips Ahoy"), or to the dopey, cowbell-laden "The Smidge," where he's telling weirdly vague stories about kids at parties, and frankly, it just isn't very interesting. Even in "Barely Breathing," which is admittedly an absolutely monstrous track, when he says, "Showing up at shows like you care about the scene still/ Where were you when the blood spilled?/ They almost killed me," it's hard not to roll your eyes, if only just for a minute. It's not that these things aren't worth singing about, it's just that, jeez, maybe they're just not worth singing about quite this much. It's no surprise (though make no mistake, it is something of a compliment) that Ben Ratliff's NY Times review of the album consisted of fake song lyrics written in the voice of Craig Finn—it's becoming hard to tell, though, if Finn has a remarkably distinct style, or if, far less impressively, he just sings about the same stuff all the time.
But let's talk high points, of which there are quite a few. There's the aforementioned "Sweet Part of the City," of course, and there's the mostly awesome "Barely Breathing," plus a handful of great lines scattered throughout, my favorite of which comes from "Our Whole Lives," about otherwise well-behaved dudes going out for a night of debauchery (like to a Hold Steady show, for instance): "Gonna make like a preemptive strike/ Hit the 5:30 mass early Saturday night." The line that'll get the most play, though, is from "We Can Get Together," which finishes the thought started in the album's title: "Heaven is whenever we can get together, sit down on your floor, and listen to your records." It's serious nerd shit, but if it hits, it hits hard.
And then here's "Hurricane J," which I've come to view as the album's actual centerpiece. In it, a young man worries that his female friend is headed down the wrong path, warning her: "I see the crowd you're hanging with/ Those kids don't seem positive... Forget all the boys that you met at the harbor/ They're too hard already/ They'll only get harder." But then he shares with us her response: "She said if heaven's hypothetical, and the cigs keep you warm/ Then how's she supposed to think about how it's gonna feel in the morning?" And this is the crossroads the band's come to: whose side do they take? His? Hers? They never really say. Maybe they never will. Maybe they want to grow up, to make that transition everyone's waiting for, but they just can't, not until they've come up with a suitable answer to her question. And maybe they're not alone.