Music

The Hold Steady: Heaven Is Whenever

Heaven Is Whenever doesn't sound old, but it does sound settled as the band's sound moves from brazen youth to hardscrabble adulthood.


The Hold Steady

Heaven Is Whenever

US Release: 2010-05-04
Label: Vagrant
UK Release: 2010-05-03
Artist Website
Label Website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image