In the promotional packet for the student life section of my future home (*and the impetus for a prolonged hiatus coming up here on Flying Houses*), the Hold Steady is pictured, with the caption, "Brooklyn Band." I am sure this particular institution had their share of options (were I in charge of marketing, it would be Animal Collective), but I suppose the Hold Steady does bring a wider appeal to the potential law student than the usual experimentation going on in the Brooklyn music scene. That said, they're not that experimental, and this album is no different from Stay Postive.
Franz Nicolay left the band, and this is perhaps the major turning point in the band's sound up to this point: no more keyboards. It's back to the same basics as Almost Killed Me. But, Almost Killed Me is about twice as good as Heaven is Whenever. What gives?
Nicolay will be missed, live at least. But Heaven is Whenever is not much different from Stay Positive in terms of its general quality, and as has always been the case for this band, in terms of its general subject matter. Craig Finn does still find ways to bring cleverness into his lyrics, which saves the album from being totally reductive. Not that the songwriting is bad or anything, but on at least a few songs I am driven to comparing riffs from previous albums.
If anything is different, it's that a few of the songs (the first track and last track stand out in this sense, but something idiosyncratic may be coming up...) sound country. These aren't the albums weakest points either, they're just unsettling. "Soft in the Center" and "The Weekenders" and "Our Whole Lives" all pretty much deliver in the same way a bunch of other not quite as memorable HS songs have in the past. Sadly, this isn't half the album that any of their first three were. It's Stay Positive, without Franz Nicolay.
OKAY, maybe Almost Killed Me isn't "twice as good" as Heaven is Whenever, but Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America both are. Since we've written about a few bands that have had career trajectories like this (BSS, New Pornographers) perhaps we need to have this conversation:
Is it worthwhile for a band to go on if the inspiration has seem to run dry? In most cases, I would say yes. It is worthwhile, because they can still deliver a powerful live experience. If any of these bands were to hear that accusation, however, they would be incensed (I assume). To accuse them of not being inspired. But this conversation has a different origin, found in my own frustrated attempts at art in a different field, and I have asked the question, do you need inspiration to write, and I heard the resounding answer ("NO"; "it's a job like anything else") and I do not buy it. But being in a rock band is different than being a writer. The Hold Steady are one of the better live bands that still don't truly have national notoriety (though they have more than fellow Brooklynites Les Savy Fav, who have the best live show) and I wouldn't miss the chance to see them. I just wonder about the sort of albums they mean to put out. They recognize their appeal as a "live band" first and "studio band" second, and they tour relentlessly, and they seem like they are having more fun than 90% of their colleagues, and so life must be a dream, that's all. Life must be great for them, and when things get too comfortable, I think art can sometimes suffer. I'm not saying you need to suffer to make good art, I'm just saying you have to know the place it comes from. Craig Finn knows the place it comes from, and he has repeatedly mined it for the last six years, and as "experimental" or "less anthemic" as they've purported to be over the last two, they sound like a band spinning its wheels, waking up every day and going to work, saving up for the futures of their families, and getting drunk, but within reason. I think Craig Finn needs to make the next Hold Steady album an homage to Zen Arcade or Pleased to Meet Me or some other hardcore Twin Cities band's opus. It would be interesting to see his capabilities when aiming for a higher mark. Otherwise I'm afraid I'll be writing the same review four years from now.