Anyone who has read more than one post on this blog is certain of two things. 1) I love the Clash and 2) I love the Hold Steady. So it should surprise no one at all that a Hold Steady album would make it onto my list of the 29 Best Albums Released in My Life (a list which was supposed to be completed by the time I turned 30, but better late than never, right?).
Separation Sunday was the very first Hold Steady album I heard. And for those of you who think it was love at first sound, it wasn’t. I thought this Craig Finn fellow might be shouting about something worth hearing, but I wasn’t that interested in finding out. My favorite song upon first listen was “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” (still one of my favorites) and I didn’t really think much of the other ones. I got that the album was trying to tell me a story, but it took me a few months of owning the album (I got it for free – one of the perks of working for the now-defunct Tower Records) to really sit down and try to listen to that story.
Once I did, though, I was duly impressed. Not only was the story of Hallelujah’s disappearance and “resurrection” a compelling listen, but Tad Kubler’s guitars and Franz Nicolay’s keyboards had wormed their way into my brain, creating a boiling soup of classic rock and literature, two things I would not have thought to combine on a regular basis (largely because some of the most offensive Led Zeppelin songs are the ones where you can tell Robert Plant had been getting high and reading Tolkien).
That was 2005 in Boston and now, five freaking years later, I still love this album. I listen to at least one Hold Steady album a week and lately, I’ve been coming back to Separation Sunday a lot. Not just for the mind-blowingly badass guitar work on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Banging Camp” (I ask you: what kind of world are we living in where people think John Mayer is a great guitar player but only a fistful of lucky souls know and recognize Tad Kubler’s mad skills? Kubler is like a dragon who breathes awesome riffs instead of fire) or the lyrical awesomeness of “The Cattle and the Creeping Things” (“I guess I heard about original sin/ I heard the dudes blamed the chick/ I heard the chick blamed the snake/ I heard they were naked when they got busted/ and I heard things ain’t never been the same since”), but because of the feeling that I get from Separation Sunday. Like the feelings I have toward a lot of albums, I get a very specific feeling from this album.
When I was a supervisor at Tower, I opened the store on Saturday mornings (a good shift – I was off by 6pm and able to go to shows or out drinking with my friends, most of whom worked at the same store), which meant getting to work by 9am. So I was on the train by 8:30. So every Saturday morning, I’d walk through my little Boston suburb and I loved the way the town felt that early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was like the whole city was sleeping off a hangover and I was tiptoeing through the house, trying not to wake anyone up. I’d march from my awesome basement apartment with my headphones on, listening to Separation Sunday more often than not, and sip coffee while I waited for the train. I’d get to work to be greeted by Baby Boomers with too much disposable income waiting to purchase tickets for whatever shitty show was going on sale that day (part of the joy of being a supervisor at Tower, you see, was running the Ticketmaster – or Ticketbastard, as I called it – counter). And when I look back at my time at Tower Records in Harvard Square (best retail job I ever had – among the top five jobs of any kind that I’ve ever had), the whole thing is soundtracked by Separation Sunday.
The album itself tells the story of a girl named Hallelujah (“the kids, they call her ‘Holly'”) who gets strung out on the Twin Cities drug and party scene and disappears for a while, only to crash into an Easter mass some months later (“Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”). She has a junkie boyfriend who cheats on her with her little hoodrat friend (Hallelujah is a hoodrat too, but you don’t find that out until the end of the album), and she finds some junkie revivalists camped on the banks of the Mississippi River who will give you a full-immersion baptism after a hit of nitrous to give you that “high as hell and born again” feeling. Along the way, she has visions of St. Theresa, sings a song to St. Barbara, and gets involved with a sweat-pants clad drug-dealer named Charlemagne (who, like Hallelujah, is a recurring character in many Hold Steady songs). The combination of the story and the hard-charging rock music that propels it serves to solidify Craig Finn’s underlying musical thesis: that you’re as good a savior as you’re likely to get and that, at the end of the day, rock ‘n’ roll is historically the least disappointing religion you can join. Though Separation Sunday depicts a druggie scene in all its puking glory, the album never becomes a morality play about the dangers of drug use. For Finn, drugs are just another self-made obstacle on Holly’s way to her self-made resurrection. Being high isn’t the problem, it’s why you get high that’s the problem (“I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story/ because when we left, we were defeated and depressed/ and when we arrived, we were rippin’ high”).
Finn’s voice is not great – most people know this. But, like Bob Dylan’s voice (yes, I did just make that comparison), Craig Finn’s voice strikes me as uniquely suited to telling the stories he has to tell. The ongoing story of people fucking themselves up and redeeming themselves is not a story to be told in the clean, polished, octave-scaling timber of a Josh Groban; it’s a story meant to be told by a guy who has lived through something. Finn sounds like he’s lived through a war – hell, like he’s sung through a war – and come out the other side. But his voice (and myriad references to early punk, early hardcore, the Bible, and John Berryman) might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people and that’s just fine by me. I can’t say for certain that I’d like the Hold Steady as much if I thought they were for everyone.