Craig Finn is a cyclone of words. Like early Springsteen, Finn seems dead set on cramming as much English as possible into three-and-a-half-minute chunks of bar band fury. But while Springsteen painted a magical landscape out of the trials and tribulations of work-a-day North Jersey kids, Finn openly laments the death of the rock and roll dream. His band is hot and steeped in the spirit, but no one wants to party. The scene is dead. Everyone one’s a critic. Everyone’s remembering the past too fondly. His friends are dead or burnt out or, worse, have sold out and given up. At times he grates on the nerves, and his propensity for repetition can be numbing, but he’s got a legitimate complaint. And, more importantly, he’s wearing his heart on sleeve. He loves what he’s doing and it’s a damn shame that more people don’t.
The record begins rather ambitiously with Finn recounting the history of 20th century America in “A Positive Jam”. Finn acquaints listeners with the grand tradition of folly and ends by asking the famously sheltered and ready-to-mope “clever kids” to hold steady. In fact, why not start a band, party, drive around and meet weird chicks who claim to be members of the Band or, even, Journey? That’s the gist of the second track, “The Swish”, which to its credit, rocks with as much glee as anything you’re likely to hear this year. In fact, the Hold Steady is as solid a rock band as any around. They play like they’ve been sworn to uphold a hallowed tradition. The rhythm section is tight, the solos wail, and the echo pedals are out of the box and on stage where they belong. They even seem to be channeling the E-Street band on the earnest piano number “Certain Songs” and the sax workout on “Knuckles”. But all is certainly not well. Finn already seems to lament the failure of his band so early in its history.
Frustration rears its ugly head on “Barfruit Blues”. The band shows up, but kids either don’t wanna party (“This was supposed to be a party / Half the crowd is calling out for born to run and the other half is calling out for born to lose”) or have already wised up to the party scene (“Holly doesn’t feel all that sweet about the places she has to sometimes go to get some sleep”). But Finn is undeterred; the ultimate truth and keystone to his argument is that somewhere out there kids are falling in love and feeling great. It should be you. The girl from “Certain Songs” who plays the songs everyone knows on the jukebox hasn’t given up like the kids killing each other for meth in “Knuckles” or the suit-and-tie crowd drinking Bacardi in “Hostile, Mass”. Or what’s worse, some of the kids who didn’t wanna give up just burned out instead like the girl from “Sketchy Metal” who only “takes the pick me uppers to counteract the put me to sleepers” or Gideon from “Sweet Payne” who’s “living up in Bay City, Michigan, working at the Michelin”.
To say that he’s looking for a party that doesn’t exist is an oversimplification. Finn is dreaming of a “unified scene,” a place where fun is served up with a “double order of love and respect.” But instead he’s at the end of the line of a thousand self-annihilating parties. Last winter, his heart “was all hooked to computers” and his memory is finally failing him. On the album’s closer, “Killer Parties”, Finn reflects on his travels and comes up without an answer: “If she says we partied then I’m pretty sure we partied. I really don’t remember. I remembered we departed from our bodies. We woke up in Ybor City”. And we all know that’s nowhere to be.