The Hold Steady
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Big Hassle

Small Tweaks Keep the Hold Steady Engaged on ‘The Price of Progress’

The Price of Progress has all the hallmarks of the Hold Steady but with just enough swerves to keep it interesting. It’s a worthy addition to their catalog.

The Price of Progress
The Hold Steady
Positive Jams / Thirty Tigers
31 March 2023

The Hold Steady will likely never again match the intensity of their original run. They burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s, releasing four albums in five years and touring hard, like the 1970s road dogs that inspired their sound. Their latest incarnation, though, as an older and wiser six-piece band, has proven nearly as productive. The Price of Progress, the Hold Steady’s third album since 2019, feels like a natural follow-up to Thrashing Thru the Passion and Open Door Policy rather than a surprising left turn.

That doesn’t make The Price of Progress any less worthwhile. This album has all the hallmarks of the Hold Steady but with just enough swerves to keep it interesting. There are big guitar riffs courtesy of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge, occasional keyboard flourishes from Franz Nicolay, and rock-solid rhythm section work from bassist Gavin Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake. A horn section is on hand to punctuate about 50% of these songs, which is consistent with this stretch of music from the Hold Steady. Out in front, there are lyrical stories from vocalist Craig Finn. Repeated listens are rewarded, allowing listeners to suss out the small details in his often-complex tales.

The record starts with one of those swerves, as “Grand Junction” has a relaxed tempo but a surprisingly wide-open, sweeping feel. The guitars steadily chug along while Nicolay provides simple but effective synth stabs. Finn sings about a couple traveling through the American West and struggling with money issues. The story isn’t one of Finn’s most distinctive, but it’s always good to hear him open up and use his voice as a singer and not just a narrator. The track effectively captures, through music, the sensations of driving through big sky country.

Immediately after, the Hold Steady are back on familiar ground with the rocking “Sideways Skull”. Musically it bears more than a passing resemblance to Thrashin’ Thru the Passion opener “Denver Haircut”. Finn talks his way through the verses and half-sings the refrain. He tells a story about a woman clinging to her rock and roll dreams despite living in a halfway house. It’s a chance for Finn to combine two of his favorite tropes: people on the wrong side of the law and what happens behind the scenes at the rock show. The most surprising part is when it stops on a dime for a simple, quiet piano solo, which then turns into a piano-guitar duet before kicking back up to full speed for the big finish.

Finn’s stories are always grounded in a specific perspective, and it’s interesting to hear which are small and mundane and which go big on The Price of Progress. “Carlos Is Crying” might be the smallest. It’s a narrative about a group of old friends getting together at a local bar and how uncomfortable it gets when Carlos has a breakdown. Finn gets in a couple of choice lines here, including, “Yeah, we’d been drinking, but it’s different for boys” and “I asked him if he wanted me to offer to walk him to his car.” The Hold Steady lope along on a jaunty guitar line and organ chords, cresting to a rocking climax where Finn proclaims, “I love you / I feel you / I’m sorry you’re hurting.”

“Sixers” falls into that same category, with a tale about an insomniac woman who takes it upon herself to visit her penthouse-dwelling upstairs neighbor late one Friday night. What happens? Not too much, actually; they hang out and talk, and it gets awkward. The track boasts one of the record’s brightest, catchiest sets of hooks. Its lack of a big sing-along chorus may be the only thing that prevents it from joining the list of the band’s best songs.

“Understudies” and “The Birdwatchers” are more dramatic. Narratively, the latter involves a pair of guys looking for something shady. They get swept up into a private army in an unfamiliar city and have a bizarre adventure. Or do they? Finn includes a lot of detail here, but it’s unclear how much is actually happening. The opening few minutes feature bouncy, horn-laden refrains, with Finn repeating at different times, “At first we were suspicious / But we drank ourselves complicit.” The bridge is genuinely unsettling, with quiet guitar feedback, vibraphone melodies, and abstract sounds from the horns. It ends cathartically, with a new horn line and a lyrical punchline that refers back to the opening.

“Understudies” unfolds like a movie, with a lyrical prologue set at a bakery. Finn immediately leaves that location for a Broadway theater, however. The main riff starts on the piano but is echoed with a distorted guitar. It settles into a late-night groove anchored by Polivka’s surprisingly funky bassline. This one has an actual chorus, with Finn singing, “And the 4:00 am’s the nighttime of the morning / And it’s hard to get to sleep after performing / When a star is born a habit begins forming / It’s hard to get to sleep after performing.”

In the story, an actor and a gaffer head out together after a show to score some drugs. They end up at the bakery, and neither shows up for the next performance, necessitating the understudy of the title. Finn cleverly cuts from the pair entering the bakery to the next night, leaving an open question about what actually happened to them.

In an interesting wrinkle, three of the songs involve American football. Album closer “Flyover Halftime” is a big, upbeat rocker that follows a group of fans from tailgating to drunkenly stumbling to their seats for the game. It ends in a blowout for their team, with the game out of reach by halftime. One of the group runs onto the field while the rest of them cause chaos in the stands. The B-side “Death of the Punchline” opens with a character desperately hoping to make money on a Monday Night Football bet. “City on Eleven” lopes along at midtempo, bopping good-naturedly, despite being about (another) last-chance football bet. It hinges on a bit of sports trivia about the University of Hawaii. “They kick off in the city at 11 [pm] / In Hawaii, it’s the middle of the day.”

The Price of Progress falls in between the Hold Steady’s previous two records regarding energy level. It’s not quite as revitalized as Thrashing, but it’s also not as laid back as Open Door Policy. Finn’s stories, while often about addicts, aren’t quite as dark here as they are on his more melancholy solo albums. Producer Josh Kaufman, who was on board for Thrashing and Open Door Policy, knows how to make the group sparkle. Guitars, keyboards, and horns spice up the tracks whenever Finn gets too downbeat. The Price of Progress is a worthy addition to the Hold Steady’s now-hefty catalog.

RATING 7 / 10