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(Boys and Girls in America)
Among other positive qualities, the Hold Steady possess the rare gift of storytelling. “Chips Ahoy!”, a favorite track from Boys and Girls in America, weaves the fascinating tale of a girl who is able to predict which horse will win the big race and pops pills routinely. The speaker’s exasperation in dealing with this complex woman pours through the song’s understated lyrics (“She’s hard on the heart / She’s soft to the touch / She gets migraine headaches / When she does it too much / She always does it too much”). The real story here, though, rests not in the song’s complex narrative, but rather in the infectious bridge, which features an energetic rolling organ part and one of the edgiest guitar riffs of the band’s career.
(Boys and Girls in America)
Craig Finn wears his unbridled love for all things Jack Kerouac on his sleeve. Therefore, nobody was surprised when he started the band’s third LP with the line “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right / Boys and girls in America, they have some a sad time together.” In fact, this line could sum up the lyrical content of almost every Hold Steady song ever written. Clearly, the group is infinitely fascinated with the simultaneous pleasures and frustrations of human relationships. The group speaks with a kind of universalism, despite the often distinctive Midwestern milieu it depicts. Finn sums it all up when he says “These Twin City kisses / They sound like clicks and hisses.”
(Almost Killed Me)
It was on this, the second track from the band’s first LP, that the Hold Steady really came into its own. With a repetitive, supremely catchy guitar riff as the backdrop, Finn talks about an odd, scary, and exciting night on the town. With references to Beverly Hills, “hazardous chemicals”, and a one-hour photo place, the narrative is more impressionistic than crystal-clear. The song launched not just the band’s career, though, but many a fan’s love for the weird, wonderful world the Hold Steady creates through its material. When Finn at the end sings, “I did a couple favors for these guys who looked like Tusken Raiders”, we’re bound to believe him, even though we might not have a clue what he’s talking about.
(Heaven Is Whenever)
“Chips Ahoy!” was such a great song that the band decided to pull off the rare feat of creating an explicit sequel, as “The Weekenders” finds the couple depicted in the previous track a few years down the road. The group begins by breaking the fourth wall that is often set up in pop music between the speaker and the audience. Finn talks directly to the listener, saying, “There was that whole weird thing with the horses / I think they know exactly what happened / I don’t think it needs any explaining.” Quite simply, “The Weekenders” consists of the most mature, emotionally resonant set of lyrics of the band’s career. The narrator begins by musing “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t your first choice / I think I was the last one remaining”. In a particularly clever line, Finn notes that “The theme of the party was The Industrial Age / And you came in dressed like a train wreck.” In one of the Hold Steady’s most notable bouts of realism, the speaker insists that “If you swear to keep it decent / Then, yeah, I’ll come and see you / But it’s not gonna be like in romantic comedies / In the end, I bet no one learns a lesson.” The song’s lyrical acuity is matched by an irresistible eighth-note bass groove, one that is sublime in its simultaneous simplicity and off-kilter nervous energy.
(Boys and Girls in America)
“You Can Make Him Like You” may seem like an odd choice to top a list of the greatest Hold Steady songs. Sure, it touches on the most commonly expressed themes in the Hold Steady’s vast catalog: the complexities of relationships, the never-ending quest for increased self-esteem, and the varied aspects of American drug culture. The speaker, talking directly to a woman whose identity is apparently bound up in her lover’s, somewhat sardonically remarks that “You don’t have to go to the right kind of schools / Let your boyfriend come from the right kind of schools / You can wear his old sweatshirt / You can cover yourself like a bruise.” However, if things don’t work out, “There’s always other boyfriends / You can make them like you.” This track is a somewhat atypical representation of the Hold Steady partially because of its decidedly precise lyrics, for mystery and ambiguity don’t creep into this song as much as on many other classic Hold Steady tunes. In addition, this cut is decidedly melodic, featuring one of the most painfully beautiful main guitar/piano riffs in the band’s entire songbook. For a group known for Finn’s often pointillist, spoken-word style, this is probably the tune most likely to make it into the Billboard Hot 100. However, it’s the Hold Steady song that I return to the most often. Its musical symmetry and lyrical clarity is refreshing amongst the group’s often challenging—yet always rewarding—repertoire.
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