If you’ve ever had that dream where your teeth fall out or crumble apart, you can recall that tossing-and-turning feeling of helplessness and existential dread that you can’t escape from while you’re asleep. For the Hold Steady, though, its Teeth Dreams are about being trapped in reality, what happens after coming down from a high and facing up to the latent fears and nagging disappointments that all the self-medicating could fend off for only so long. This time out, there’s not so much about booze and drugs, and nothing about hoodrats, with the key terms on Teeth Dreams being frustration and anxiety — “waking up with that American sadness”, as Craig Finn puts it strikingly. Finding the hardest partying indie act ever riddled by angst and worry over bad judgment and worse decisions, Teeth Dreams is the album where the Hold Steady is settling up the tab for the good times either because the effects of all the intoxicants have worn off or Finn and company have outlived that scene. Few bands lived for the night like the Hold Steady in its prime did, but now they seem more scared of the dark than the harsh light of the day — in Finn’s words, “Yeah, there are nights I get terrified.”
So while the Hold Steady’s catalog has consisted of detailed character sketches and vivid scenarios extolling the virtues of indulging the devil whispering in your ear, Teeth Dreams deals more with the demons left in the wake. You can almost imagine Finn’s flawed protagonists on Teeth Dreams occupying different circles of a living purgatory, whether it’s experiencing an instant of blanching panic when a sketchy past and a bright future collide uncomfortably on the opener “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” or the big-picture, long-haul perspective that you’re an insignificant cog in the larger scheme of things on “On with the Business”. Many of the lives explored in Teeth Dreams are stuck in a state of limbo where they’re not sure if their time has come and gone, with characters fretting over their closing window of opportunity on “Spinners” and “Wait a While” or figuring out if they’re down on their luck for now or for good throughout.
And yet, Teeth Dreams hardly feels burdensome or like a bummer. Boasting a guitar-driven rock approach anchored by Tad Kubler and new second guitarist Steve Selvidge that beefs up the more playful, carnivalesque sound of before, the Hold Steady manages to handle the new effort’s heavier themes and more nuanced vignettes with the same bluster and energy it took to recreating debauched parties and illicit activities. “On with the Business”, specifically, comes off like an arena-rocking screed on the shrinking middle class told from the perspective of someone overwhelmed by the pressures of consumer culture, with Finn bemoaning, “Bountiful chemicals / Beautiful kitchens / So many choices, decisions, decisions.” The raucous, swaggering “Big Cig” might be more in line with what you’d expect from the Hold Steady both in content and tone, though there’s just something more knowing in Finn’s insights about being led around by someone he knows is bad for him, realizing that he’s served his purpose for her and “she could probably find a better guy” even as he still goes along with a dead-end relationship as far as it’ll take him.
Indeed, it’s the noticeable yet natural change in Finn’s worldly wise outlook that’s what is most engaging and compelling about Teeth Dreams, as his tone has developed from the wry bemusement of his best, most quotable material to the sympathetic, even poignant treatments here. That melancholy sense of camaraderie comes through vividly when Finn’s describing an ex living in a “storage space down by the airport” on “The Only Thing”, or on the panoramic snapshot of “The Ambassador”, as he tracks the stories of folks who are at the end of their rope, only to have the music gently lift with piano and organ to suggest there’s still enough of a reason to hold on. Accompanied by Kubler and Selvidge’s interlaced guitars on the resonant acoustic number “Almost Everything”, Finn’s voice rings out earnestly on the refrain of “Yeah, there are nights I get terrified / I’m sure you get terrified too / So, hey, won’t you show me a sign that I’m getting through to you?,” as if he’s reaching out so that no one with a life with no guarantees has to go it alone. And on the single “Spinners”, the Hold Steady shapes its signature bar-rock moves into something more melodic and sentimental as Finn dispenses relationship advice in sing-along verses, almost crooning reassuring lines like, “Once you’re out there everything’s possible / Even the bad nights, they aren’t all that terrible / Loosen your grip, it feels so incredible.”
The idea that the Hold Steady is turning over a new leaf on Teeth Dreams doesn’t come to its fullest fruition, though, until the grand, nine-minute closing number “Oaks”. Tellingly, appropriately, “Oaks” ends Teeth Dreams with a more peaceful and picturesque kind of dream, as Finn sings of how “We dream of the views from the boats / Of mountains all covered in oaks.” What realizes this more idyllic vision is an expansive, almost pastoral sound, with an echoey twang that brings Pavement’s Brighten the Corners to mind. Whether the dream of “Oaks” is ultimately a fleeting illusion or the hopeful promise of a new reality, the Hold Steady’s earned a well-deserved respite to round out Teeth Dreams, an album about staring down and not running away from a past that haunts the present and future.