The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn is the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent to Kurt Vonnegut — funny through wit instead of cheap shots, he manages to vividly portray people and society, pointing a finger at their ridiculous contradictions, all the while giving them a hug. The music will get you up and moving, but it’s the storytelling that puts The Hold Steady’s second record, Separation Sunday, on the map. The lyrics grab the audience from the opening, making it near impossible to do anything but listen closely. Except, perhaps, to drive. Quickly.
Samples: “She’s slept with so many skaters.” “I won’t be much for all this Humbert Humbert stuff.” “I have to try so hard not to fall in love / I have to concentrate when we kiss.” “I guess the heavy stuff ain’t quite at its heaviest / By the time it gets out to suburban Minneapolis.” And the bonus: these gems all come from one song, the opening “Hornets! Hornets!” Craig Finn resembles nothing so much as the completely coherent drunk everyone seems to have in their lives. He’s that brilliant person who majored in literature or philosophy (or, even better, dropped out of high school due to sheer boredom) but never became a judgmental asshole. Instead, all of his readings have only proved his initial suspicions. Human beings are a messy bunch, and there’s no difference between you and the person you hate. It’s just a different story.
Separation Sunday features 11 songs that contain recurring characters and locales. Biblical references abound, but so do drugs, sex, and slightly aggressive-sounding parties. Everyone seems to want to be born again, or they already have, and are admiring the way the cross “looks on her chest with three open buttons” (“Cattle and the Creeping Things”). Finn has a knack for making the creepy dark side of young adulthood ring true with his banter-esque lyrics. “Stevie Nix”, with its humorous title proclaims, “She got strung out on the scene / She got scared when it got druggy / The way the whispers bit like fangs / In the last hour of the parties.” Separation Sunday has a story to tell. It does so with humor and empathy, but it never turns it back on the depressing and bleak. It’s this above-par writing that elevates the record above the bar-band status it might get if only focusing on the music and the sound of Craig Finn’s voice, which is like a warm bark — you’ll love it quickly, but some will request you to turn it off.
The bar-band tag need not be a hindrance, and The Hold Steady play it like the best of the lot. Tad Kubler (guitar), Galen Polivka (bass), Bobby Drake (drums), and Franz Nicolay (keyboards) bring a super-tight sound to the record. They know how to work with Finn so his story can be told without rushing. Interesting breaks, a respect for space, and perfect layering make the songs live in a way that is exciting. This is nothing new. It’s rock. But the energetic pace and flawless sequencing practically guarantee you will not be able to turn this CD off after you’ve put it on. It’s separated-at-birth counterpart would be Marah’s Kids in Philly, another record that isn’t for everyone, but transcends for some: it becomes a record that takes straight-forward rock and makes it poetic through a singular, compelling vision.
Separation Sunday won’t win over the masses, but that’s not what its intentions should be. The Hold Steady’s record is a testament to what good times are really like, if you’re paying close attention. That, and it will make you air-guitar. For certain.