The Hold Steady: Thrashing Thru the Passion

The Hold Steady: Thrashing Thru the Passion

Thrashing is the work of a band artfully redefining what they want to be after 15 years together.

The Hold Steady: Thrashing Thru the Passion

3.75 / 5

Things got a little dicey for a while with The Hold Steady. Once America’s favorite bar band, their first four albums – Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday (arguably their best), their breakout Boys & Girls in America (their other contender for “the best”), and Stay Positive – were essential for funny, well-read guitar pop that was just as happy to reference John Berryman as it was to reference Dillinger Four’s “Doublewhiskeycokenoice.” Then, in early 2010, keyboardist/backup singer Franz Nicolay departed the band, and they made Heaven Is Whenever (2010) and Teeth Dreams (2014), both portraits of stagnation and wheel-spinning. It was a bummer time for The Hold Steady. Nicolay may not have been a member of the band until {Separation Sunday} (he guested on Almost Killed Me), but the evidence that he was the group’s missing piece is hard to ignore.

Separation Sunday was all about resurrection, which makes what happened next even better: Nicolay rejoined the band in 2016 for the 10th anniversary tour of Boys & Girls and has stayed back. They kept guitarist Steve Selvidge, their attempt to replace Nicolay, becoming a mammoth six-piece outfit. Now five years after Teeth Dreams, they’re finally back with Thrashing Thru the Passion, further evidence of his status as the band’s secret weapon. Simply put, it blows Heaven and Teeth out of the water; the band sound revitalized, and their self-assuredness in their current power levels translates to an album disinterested in proving anything.

Early on in opener “Denver Haircut,” Finn rattles off a line that perfectly encapsulates the band in 2019: “You’re kind of catching me at a transitional time/ I’m a bright light burning into a dark horse,” which is perhaps his best lyric since “Heaven is whenever we get together.” They might not have anything to prove, but that’s not to say they don’t sound different. The basics are still there – Tad Kubler is still a guitar demigod, after all, and Nicolay’s keyboard wizardry elevates every song – but the atmosphere feels a little warmer, everything just a little looser. Thrashing is content to play solid rock songs that don’t feel like they’re aiming for the bleachers; gone are the moshpit thrashers (ironically) and the more stripped-back balladeering (see: “First Night,” “Lord, I’m Discouraged”). We still get the latter, as they saved those impulses for the legitimately beautiful “Blackout Sam,” which gives us a sweet little a capella ending that dovetails nicely into “Entitlement Crew.” That one, by the way, sees Finn’s sing-talk sounding dangerously close to that of Eddie Argos, his British counterpart and frontperson of Art Brut. This will be delightful for anyone who’s a fan of both bands.

Picking out Finn lyrics to talk about is like shooting fish in a barrel. Despite having released his solo album I Need a New War just three months ago, he hasn’t run dry on lyrical power, made more impressive by the fact that I Need was easily his best solo album yet. Do you talk about the short little phrases like “Tequila takeoff, Tecate landing” (“Entitlement Crew”) or longer chunks like “We were sleeping on the shuttle on the way to the club/ And the holy perception and the most precious blood/ It flooded the ruts and it soaked the upholstery” (“You Did Good Kid”)? Thrashing is a reward for the faithful as well as for the musically ravenous, packed with callbacks and references to touchpoints in the Hold Steady canon, as well as lines like “Sorry I’m late, I got caught in a mosh/ With this dude who said he used to play with Peter Tosh/ But he never brought it up again once I said, ‘Man, I don’t believe you’.” Who else could pull that off? For that matter, who else could pull off “She texts from the exit, says she’s on her way over/ In an ocelot coat with the epaulet shoulders/ It’s sweet ’cause I’m a sucker for the dictator chic” (“Epaulets”)? He’s still good when he’s subtle, as well: when he sings “Now promise me you won’t forget/ The nights that haven’t happened yet” in “Blackout Sam” or “I hope I still know you when this is all over” in “The Stove & the Toaster,” you really feel it.

The one thing that simply does not work as intended is the vocals of the album. In concert, Finn’s voice is frequently overtaken by the loud bashes of positive rage being made by the rest of the band, but their albums have always put it front and center. Here, though, his vocals sound buried and unfinished, as though someone forgot to take out the slapback reverb and up the levels. Knowing this band it was an intentional move to help usher the band into a new era where everyone is as important as him, but it’s hard to not wish you could make out his entirely-too-clever lyrics a little more easily. Further, it makes it just a little harder for Thrashing to feel as vital as their heyday work did.

That said, does The Hold Steady need to make “vital” work anymore? Immediacy is what made Boys & Girls so successful, but their immediacy isn’t all the band has to offer. Not only that, but The Hold Steady are a different band than they were when they put Stay Positive out: they seem unconcerned with the harrows of touring, instead performing multi-night residency events in different cities and putting out albums with somewhere near the minimum of fanfare. Thrashing is the work of a band artfully redefining what they want to be after 15 years together, and ushering in a new era in a way that seems so natural that you don’t know why anyone had to leave and come back to make it all click together.

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