Over the course of their career, The Hold Steady have been given half-assed titles like, “America’s best bar band,” or “America’s best party band,” or whatever. But let’s not mince words, kids (instead, mince some garlic, toss it in a bowl with some chili powder and black pepper. Your tuna steaks should’ve been soaking in tequila and lime juice for a few hours; go ahead and dip them in the dry mixture and then pan fry on medium heat until the tuna flakes easily with a fork. Serve over a salad of black beans, cheese, tomato, lettuce, and avocado. Goes down nicely with a cold pale ale): The Hold Steady are the best rock band there is right now. Bar none. You can have your Chemical Romances and your Panics at the Disco, you can sell your organs on the black market to get Rolling Stones tickets (“Sure, I’ll pay four months’ rent to see corpses on stage! They’re legendary corpses!”), you can get high enough to dream that 1)Axl Rose will ever actually release Chinese Democracy and 2) it will be any kind of listenable, but you’d be throwing shit at a wall and waiting for it to stick. The Hold Steady are the real deal.
Consider: Stay Positive was supposed to drop July 15th. Sometime in June, it got leaked to the internet (like everything eventually does), and what did the band do? Did they throw a Metallica-style fit and make asinine claims about how they don’t make music for their fans? No. They put the whole fucking album up on their MySpace page, put the album out early on iTunes (youTunes, actually; I don’t), and then slapped three bonus tracks on the hard release, not least of which is “Ask Her for Adderall.” Because, as Mr. Finn says on “Stay Positive”: “We couldn’t even have done this if it wasn’t for you”. I’ve seen these dudes live three times and every time, they say thanks to us, the little folks, for giving them the coolest job in the world. The Hold Steady doesn’t have time for websites about how they saved your life – they’re too busy kicking your ass with the best rock music available anywhere.
From Almost Killed Me to Stay Positive, The Hold Steady have bested themselves, tightened their sound, added more instrumental flourishes, et cetera. The time was gonna come when Craig Finn was gonna have to learn to sing or destroy his voice (which should be listed as “baritone sax” on their first 3 records). So he took some voice lessons between Boys and Girls In America and the new album. The band is tighter than ever (Tad Kubler may be our last true guitar hero) and they’ve added some nice textures (horns on “Sequestered in Memphis”, a harpsichord on “One for the Cutters,” and J. Mascis playing banjo on “Both Crosses”) to back up Finn’s working-class poetry. Stay Positive opens with my new obsession, “Constructive Summer,” which continues the Hold Steady’s tradition of opening the fuck out of an album and ups the ante considerably with lines like “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer/ I think he might have been our only decent teacher/getting older makes it harder to remember/ we are our only saviors/ we’re gonna build something this summer.” It’s a blue-collar anthem (“me and my friends are like/ the drums on ‘Lust for Life’/ we pound it out on floor toms/ our psalms are sing-along songs”) that eats the lunch of every Springsteen song ever. I cannot listen to Stay Positive without listening to “Constructive Summer” twice every single time.
I could bore you with the track by track, but you already know I fucking love this record. It turns all of The Hold Steady’s previous tricks up to 11 – sing-along choruses, big guitar riffs, pounding drums, and Craig Finn’s raspy-assed poetry on every track. Stay Positive features, I think, some of Finn’s best writing. Take “One for the Cutters,” for instance: a sprawling epic (for a Hold Steady song) about the dangers of partying with townies, Finn pencils in every detail with verve (“one drop of blood on immaculate Keds,” is a line worthy of Tom Waits). There’s humor and hope and hopelessness all bound up in the 14 songs that make up Stay Positive. Finn is also one of a handful of songwriters who can use religious imagery without being a cloying, pretentious twat. “I met your savior/ I knelt at his feet/ he took my ten bucks/ and he went down the street” (from “Constructive Summer” – see? it’s fucking awesome!). On “Lord I’m Discouraged,” Finn talks about praying that his junkie girlfriend doesn’t die, but he’s getting the feeling that maybe no one’s hearing the prayer because she keeps “coming up with/ excuses and half-truths/ and fortified wine”. “Both Crosses” details the crucifixion of Jeebus through a woman’s visions – “she saw the footage right before it got cut.” “Both Crosses” describes the violence of crucifixion, the exploitation that followed (“Baby, that’s how we get energized”), and humanizes a story that some folks tend to see in very starry-eyed terms. Jesus, if he was a real dude, suffered a horrible death (on a day some people actually refer to as “Good Friday” without a trace of irony) – as did many other folks at the time (the Romans were big on crucifixion). If the story won’t save you, what will? Finn suggests that you have to save yourself, but he has also suggested, since the band’s inception on Almost Killed Me, that rock ‘n’ roll can help.
All in all, Stay Positive is a love letter to rock music and to The Hold Steady’s fans – like all Hold Steady albums, it’s a great disc to crank up while you’re driving anywhere with the windows down during the summer. Or when you’re having friends over for a beer or five. In any case, it’s The Hold Steady’s best album yet and a true rock accomplishment in an age of emo and pop-punk posers. If someone is going to release a better rock album than Stay Positive, they’d better get to work – the gauntlet has been thrown down by The Hold Steady. While Craig Finn and company are raising a toast to St. Joe Strummer, they can rest assured that somewhere, perhaps from a corner booth at The Afterlife Bar & Grill, he’s raising a pint right back at them.