The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn doesn’t have the most polished vocal delivery you’ve ever heard. In fact, it could be the only thing holding his band back from mainstream acceptance. It also happens to give them a charm and character that is as brilliant as it is rare in modern day rock ‘n’ roll. His whole approach has been pretty accurately described as a drunken, slurring, Midwestern Springsteen with a glorious dependence on intoxicants (no, we’re not discussing Robert Pollard), as well as a penchant for metaphors and vivid characterizations.
That’s all true, but the man can also tell a story like many of the lyrical greats, painting a picture of down-on-their-luck hoodrats, scenesters, addicts, and musicians. Separation Sunday shouldn’t get tagged as a concept record — Finn and co. are too self-aware to go down that road — but it is ripe with recurring characters, continual plot updates, and even a bona fide finale. The thing that sinks in over the course of these tales, though, is that they may not be fictional at all, and Finn isn’t singing like he means it, he’s singing like he lived it.
The rest of the band offers a lightly polished mix of balls-out riffage, sloppy swagger, cocky guitar solos, and a refreshing reliance on keyboards and organs to swell through the album’s continual segues. For better or worse, it takes a few listens before it’s even possible to step back from the narration and realize how tight this band is, and how incredibly comfortable they sound playing together. It all congeals in the end, though, and the Hold Steady have walked away with one of the great underdog epics of the past few years. This is the true story of the American Idiot.