The more you listen to Heaven Is Whenever, the more something becomes clear: the Hold Steady’s sound has been running on a timeline. There was the snarling infancy of Almost Killed Me, the ragged teenage years of Separation Sunday, the self-destructive young adulthood of Boys and Girls in America, and then the reluctant maturity of Stay Positive. It was the same personality all the way through, the same sound at the core, but emotions and perspective were subtly shifting, even as the vocabulary stayed the same.
Now we’ve got Heaven Is Whenever, and for all the talk of aging gracefully in Stay Positive, this seems to be the real step into adulthood — which I think kicks in around 35 these days. Craig Finn is still mining the parties and the crowds at the shows, and the drinks and the pills and the scuffed up 7-inches for inspiration, and it’s still working. But the past tense he’s employing on, say “The Sweet Part of the City”, feels pretty far in the past. In older records the nerve was raw, the wounds fresh and hot and stinging. But here they’ve dulled to scars outlining hard-learned lessons, and Heaven Is Whenever sounds a lot like Holly and Charlemagne and all those kids from Hostile, Massachusetts, getting back together to talk about the good days, to tell the stories they’re nearly ready to face, to let the kids now know what it was like then.
Sometimes, we don’t even get the details. “It was that whole weird thing with the horses / I think they know exactly what happened”, Finn sings at the beginning of “The Weekenders”, not bothering to tell the story, because it’s the weight of knowing in his voice that matters, that tells us it was a heavy time. Same goes with the road-worn shuffle of “The Sweet Part of the City”. They move away from their classic rock riffing, using a twanging bed of guitars to dip us deep into the nostalgia. That sweet part of the city — “the part with the bars and restaurants” — is a time and place Finn’s narrators are grudgingly moving on from. “Nodding off in matinees” was probably their idea of a hell of a time, but the song is anchored with something close to regret, a clear-eyed understanding of a time that has passed.
Not that these people have quit partying altogether. The population of the Hold Steady catalog are lifers in the bar circuit, even as their tired eyes give away past troubles. But here Finn sings of people who don’t push to the edge every damn night. “We used to want it all / Now we just want a little bit”, Finn claims at one point, showing us people who still want to be plugged in to something alive, they still want to go out and crowd around the rest of the people, still want to smell the alcohol in the air and the stale cigarette smoke in the booth’s upholstery. They’re just not kids anymore, and as heavy as the regret can hang in the air, mostly they seem okay, even willing to impart wisdom, whereas on past records they might have spit out self-destructive mantras. When Finn sings, “You can’t get every girl / You’ll get the ones you love the best”, on “Soft in the Center”, it feels more considered, more earnest a life lesson than anyone on Separation Sunday was capable of. And when Finn remembers everything from a Utopia song to an old Hüsker Dü single on “We Can Get Together”, it’s a small celebration of the quiet moments that “we” had together, how in the end, being in the same place at the same time, heads to the speakers — that was the thing that counted outside all the pills and the powders.
The sound of the record matches all this thoughtful looking back, all this aging. Which isn’t to say that Heaven Is Whenever sounds old at all, but it does sound settled. Finn’s voice is evened out for the most part here. There’s still a hint of sneer, but mostly it’s all cool-headed recollection. Behind him, the band sands a bit of the edge off their licks and spread their sound out a little bit. There’s still some hard rocking here — “The Weekenders” is a driving rock song, and “Rock Problems” and “Hurricane J” both are bound to be touring staples with those chugging guitars and bracing choruses. Hell, they even step back in time with “The Smidge”, which sounds more like the angular riffs of Lifter Puller than any Hold Steady material. There are moments that step out into other sounds too, but slower numbers like “We Can Get Together” and “The Sweet Part of the City” are right in line with stuff like “First Night” or “Lord, I’m Discouraged”.
The real new ground they break here comes on the expansive closer, “A Slight Discomfort”. Finn’s vocals are awash in hollowed-out reverb, and the guitars don’t cut through the song, they coat it in a thick mist. Piano plinks and plunks its way through as Finn closes this cathartic trip down memory lane. “We’ve seen scattered ash and now we’ve mostly come out unscathed”, he sings, lilting with relief, even as he admits, “A struggle still feels wonderful most days.” The song goes on for seven minutes, and the mist and fog works itself up into a bracingly huge rumble of synthesizers and crashing drums and buzzing guitars. It’s a whole new kind of anthem for these guys, not a lean rocker, but more the transmogrified sound of all these people coming together and making something forceful.
It’s also the most successful moment for the production on this record, because on the whole it’s a bit puzzling. In fact, in a lot of places here, it’s hard not to notice the absence of Franz Nicolay. It was his keyboard that filled everything out before, and without him the band seems anxious to fill that void, mostly with beds of acoustic guitar and big backing vocals. The trouble is, both seem way too high in the mix, particularly on the first few tracks. So instead of feeling layered, the songs sound clustered up. Those backing vocals coat over the lean guitars and butt up against Finn’s singing, and the added layer of acoustics thrumming underneath leaves no room for any sound on those songs to breathe. The heavy touch of the production also sometimes renders choruses flat. Finn doesn’t get to cut through it and reach out to us on, say, “Our Whole Lives”. Instead he — and us by extension — has to fight his way through all that sound. And the simple, sing-along choruses actually feel a bit too simple when they’re overdressed in this way.
Still, Heaven Is Whenever shows us, yet again, that the Hold Steady take the long view. They know where they’ve been, and it sure seems like they know where they’re going. There’s a real comfort in the settled feel to this record, even if it is occasionally dulled by the overblown production. Sure, there’s an excitement in the brazen, drugged-up youth on display in earlier records, and perhaps the peaks here aren’t quite as tall. But this album gives us a new energy, one that comes on subtly, that earns its way through, and will last a lot longer than Holly’s high used to.