After not really seeing what all the fuss was about the Hold Steady, everything finally clicked for me at last year’s Lollapalooza. Thousand of fans pumped their fists in the air and sang along to every lyric, finding joyful communion in tales about too-drunk nights, not clicking with anyone right and not finding the correct solace in the correct religion. The Hold Steady writes about the discomfort and confusion of your twenties from the comfortable distance of their thirties, so its songs possess reassuring clarity.
The Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis band’s albums generally cohere based on a story arc or theme – no matter how loose or metaphorical. On first listen, Stay Positive, the band’s July 15-released album, seems preoccupied with consequences -- of aging ("Joke about Jamaica"), self-harm ("Lord, I'm Discouraged"), summer shenanigans ("Constructive Summer"), class discrimination ("One for the Cutters") or stardom ("Slapped Actress"). Unsurprisingly, Positive almost feels like a transitional album in the band's career, where it's attempting to maintain its knack for tossing off celebratory bar-band boogie -- while not treading water or repeating itself musically.
The sequencing is somewhat jarring; the album's slower, most pensive songs follow peppy moments in most cases. Producer John Agnello, however, again coaxes crisp sounds from the band. Even if the characters which it discusses aren't exactly the luckiest, Positive sounds fantastic and hi-fi.
In the band's new bio, vocalist Craig Finn says, "I think this record, musically and lyrically, is about the attempt to age gracefully. This is no easy feat, especially in rock and roll. I am now 36, and will be 37 shortly after this record is released." I wrote the following review before reading this, but this sentiment makes complete sense in context with the record -- where lyrics wonder if an obsession with youthful cultural touchstones is still acceptable, deal with being the "older woman" in the scene and generally focus on the big questions in the here-and-now.
Here's a track-by-track analysis:
“Constructive Summer”: For anyone who relishes the implied freedom and inherent possibility that comes with the arrival of warm weather every year, Craig Finn has a line for you: “Let this be my annual reminder, that we can all be something bigger.” Musically, the song employs typical Springsteen piano boogie and screaming guitars to underscore the hope that comes with summer, the idea that tomorrow’s muggy night might inspire that life-changing event.
“Sequestered in Memphis”: Go listen to it elsewhere; it’s a typical Hold Steady single and bojangles piano, all E Street camaraderie and a detailed, descriptive tale about being "subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis." Handclaps and big sing-alongs should make this song a perfect set closer live.
“One for the Cutters”: Buoyed by a harpsichord and Finn’s solemn, almost preacher-like delivery, this song is a commentary about social/economic class -- and consequences. The lyrics feel like Dylan: Girl from the right side of the tracks drinks with townies who “smoke cigs till they’re sick,” sleeps with one and gives him a ride to “some kid’s house in Cleveland” – and finds herself in court after he had some blood on his jacket. Crashing classical piano enters at this point, appropriately: “It didn’t seem much different, now the cops want to question everyone present.” She covers up for him in court – and finds herself jaded about the entire process, wondering what the whole point was. The song’s denouement: “When one townie falls in the forest, can anyone hear it?” A bit ponderous and overly long.
“Navy Sheets”: Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers guests on this song, according to the band's label, Vagrant. Late-‘70s synths bursting with ELO glitter and Cars/Cheap Trick power-pop boom dominate, before a crunchy guitar solo from that same era stitches the song’s parts together. “Everybody’s coming on the Navy sheets / Everybody wants to suck on something sweet.” I’m having trouble deciphering most of the lyrics, but I generally think this song is about innocence lost; the music is rather flashy and brash, almost garishly so. This doesn’t take away from its catchiness, though. A favorite.
“Lord, I’m Discouraged”: As one might suspect from its name, this is a slow, airy jam with roots in blues and gospel. Wistful piano that’s almost indebted to top 40 pop drives the verses, while choruses feature a choir of head-shaking, sad voices; a string section marches in proudly at about two minutes – just before an epic, masturbatory guitar solo. Honestly, this is totally reminiscent of a Guns ‘n Roses song ca. Use Your Illusion I and II (in my book, not a bad thing, as I’m a fan). Seems like a song about a friend worried about/frustrated for/feeling helpless regarding another friend in trouble – perhaps with drugs or depression.
“Yeah Sapphire”: Back to brisk, upbeat Springsteen-isms. Melancholy, resigned guitar drives the melody. The end of the song, like “One for the Cutters,” relies on a catchphrase: “I was a skeptic at first, but these miracles work.” Pleasant enough, but seems like a paint-by-numbers Hold Steady song – from the tempo straight on through the instrumentation.
“Both Crosses”: A slow, moody track where acoustic guitar and ambient keyboards – think mellower, psychedelic Led Zeppelin moments – dominate. Weird instrumental flourishes abound; what sounds like a space-age theremin and even a marimba dot the sculpted soundscape. Finn plays up the religious imagery here; references to Judas, Catholic girls and crosses crop up in the lyrics. Finn resembles Mike Doughty on this song, all syncopated, spoken-word delivery, as he tosses off lines like, “Baby, let’s transverberate.” Much to unpack here, but feels like a case of religion and sex intertwining with guilt and duty.
“Stay Positive”: Hello, Elvis Costello-bright organ. Hello, power-punk guitars -- and a bashing, muscular tempo to match. Finn nearly spits his lyrics (which reference Youth of Today and 7 Seconds) that feel like a shiny-happy bit of levity to its fans – and the downtrodden characters populating the album – if not a Post-It note to the band itself. Finn cheers: “It’s one thing to start it with a positive jam, and it’s another thing to see it through / And we couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you.” Fun and memorable, but not particularly deep.
“Magazines”: Trumpet and booming layers of piano, bass and guitar – somewhat reminiscent of My Morning Jacket – bolster this tune, which is full of the astute details for which the band is known (“Second dates and lipstick tissues”). The chorus sums up the hope inherent in the nevertheless fucked-up situation of the lyrics: A growly, Muppet-like voice intones, “Magazines and daddy issues, I know you’re pretty pissed, I hope you’ll still let me kiss you” – alternating with Finn’s more straightforward delivery of the line. Catchy again.
“Joke About Jamaica”: More Costello-like organ, although this is more “Watching the Detectives” levels of sinister rather than the bubbly type found on “Radio Radio.” The song seems to focus on a narrator who’s immersed (and ingratiated) herself in a music scene where the boys were cute and the weekends were long and debauched. But younger (cuter) girls, “c-c-co-coaine blues” and bands who turn into shoulda-beens start to creep into the scene instead; song ends in what feels like a talkbox-aided solo and alarmed organ: “The boys in the band, no they’ll never be stars.” Captures the paralyzing fear of being washed-up in a youth-dominated scene, while warning of the dangers of relying on surface attributes for validation.
“Slapped Actress”: Uber-‘90s alt-rock grungy guitars – with hints of shoegaze and Bowie, of all things -- drive this tune. The midtempo chug should feel epic and album-closing, but instead feels peppered with tired clichés, abstract guilt and the location references (Ybor City and Tampa get shout-outs) for which the Hold Steady is known. Plus, lines like “We are the actors, the cameras are rolling” obfuscate the point rather than . A wordless, somewhat-haunting chorus-croon ends the song with a sudden note – leaving things feeling unsettled and unfinished. In light of the rest of the album, however, this part of the song makes complete logical sense.