Heaven Is Whenever

The Hold Steady

Vagrant, 2010


REVIEW BY: Julia Skochko


The Hold Steady feels your pain.  No, really.  They explicitly say so.  "I  know what you're going through," asserts singer Craig Finn on "Soft In The Center," "I had to go through that, too." And he does know... oh, he does.  Sometimes, if you're lucky - if the stars and FM transmitters align – your favorite band is more than just your favorite band.  They speak not just to you but of you.  Your life story's no longer a patchwork of "ums" and awkward pauses, but a tapestry of beauty, insight and power chords.  Like cigarette ashes through an hourglass... so are the Bands of Our Lives.

If you're a Jersey kid with a motorcycle, an aching heart and an impassioned desire to escape the latter on the former, Bruce and the E Street Band are yours.  If you spent high school clad in Che t-shirts and righteous fury, you've got Bad Religion.  And if you're a born rabble-rouser?  Bright, ballsy, desperate, and degenerate?  Not just liable but hell-bent to go further than you should and regret it less than you ought?  Your patrons saints have arrived.  They're a bunch of fortyish guys from Brooklyn.  Don't worry.  They know you better than you do.  And your chicanery's never sounded so magical.

Rock 'n roll, storytelling and bad behavior have shared a long and lusty menage a trois.  In unskilled hands (or pleather pants), the results can be atrocious.  But when they're harmoniously fused - by musicians with solid skills, poetic hearts and public indecency convictions - what bursts forth can be pure, raucous joy.  Warren Zevon was a master of the form.  However, his gorgeously composed, bitterly funny ballads could rarely be called "real rip-snorters."

Seven years into their unintentional adventure (they didn't plan to tour or record), The Hold Steady have produced five albums of rip-snorting, barn-burning, life-affirming rock.  Lyricist Finn has also churned out enough dense, inventive verbiage to fill a novel - and a damned entertaining one at that.  The Hold Steadiverse is a druggy, urban version of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.  Characters have convoluted, intertwined back stories. Songs are jam-packed with references: other groups' songs, other Hold Steady songs, characters' prior exploits, Twin Cities topography, and a good percentage of the DEA's controlled substances.  And like the "clever kids" they name-check, the band's done some growing up.

Their breakout release, Boys And Girls In America, was a manic mingle at a massive party.  Two thousand eight’s Stay Positive was more like the harsh light of morning... waking up wedged in a stranger's sectional and wondering what went down in between your brain hitting "pause" and your body following suit.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Heaven Is Whenever, the group's fifth full-length, is their deepest, subtlest and most complex to date.  If its predecessors were "party" and "hangover," respectively, Heaven is sitting at Denny's in sweatpants, warming your hands on a cup of sludgy coffee and thinking about Life.

The album's reflective tone is immediately apparent. "The Sweet Part Of The City" is slow and summery.  Slide guitar riffs swoop like dragonflies, a tambourine jangles sweetly, and Finn kicks around the past like a rock down a dusty road.  "Barely Breathing" is a harder-edged kind of thoughtful.  Its combination of weariness and bouncy, vaudevillian theatrics is grabby than catchy, though.  Far more successful is the wistful "We Can Get Together." The gentle piano, softly-strummed guitars and swelling background chorus make for knee-bucklingly romantic results. It's a tribute to the power of love and the power of music ("heaven is whenever / we can get together / lock your bedroom door / and listen to your records").  It's not quite swaying with thousands of sweaty, blissed-out kids in a field at sundown... but it's close.

While they do a damned fine job at "lushly pretty," The Hold Steady's real forte is "gleefully energetic."  And rest assured, Heaven delivers the goodies.  "Rock Problems" is the disc's most anthemic track... a sly, rollicking gem with a shout-along chorus.  "Soft In The Center" is a hard-charging, Rick Springfield-esque slice of 80's earnestness.  It also features an excellent blues-by-way-of-"November Rain" guitar solo.  With dirty, stuttery guitars undulating over tight, snaky percussion, "The Smidge" is a grim, sexy paean to getting more pleasure than you'd ever thought possible out of things you never thought you'd do.

All of those tracks manage to combine - improbably but skillfully - hands-flung-skyward enthusiasm and Advil-'n-nosebleeds contemplation.  But while they reflect the spirit of Heaven, the best track absolutely clobbers you with it.  "Our Whole Lives" is an ecstatic cataclysm.  It's Springsteenian rock at its biggest and most powerful.  It's joy and suffering, resignation and determination.  It's a bleacher-stomping, hard-hitting service at the church of American music.  When the saxophone and hand-claps kick in, it's utterly cliched... and it still makes you want to grin and shout, "Testify!"

The album's other two standout tracks are radically different (yet no less powerful) than "Our Whole Lives."  They're a remarkably solemn contrast to the group's riled-up, wild-eyed anthems.  "The Weekenders"'s heart is a literal one... a somber, insistent bass line like a far-from-calm pulse. The sharp bursts of guitar and backing chorus swirl and rage as the lyrics try to find footing to reflect on still-unsettled wreckage ("if you swear to keep it decent, then yeah I'll come and see you / but it's not going to be like in romantic comedies / in the end I bet no one learns a lesson").

The closing track, "A Slight Discomfort," is a thorny one:  in addition to being seven minutes plus, it's also their most atypical, unapproachable song thus far.  It's a slow, bright-burning epic that shares more with Interpol's "NYC" than Boys And Girls In America.  It's only after repeated listening that the enormity begins to hit you.  It starts out smoldering, echoic and Gypsy-tinged, then unfolds into a massive, shimmering soundscape.  The drumwork's like gunfire; the piano and violin bleak, minimalist and eerie. It has the visceral intensity of Portishead and precious little of customary Hold Steady positivity... that is, until the very end.

The last few seconds of Heaven Is Whenever are a single piano note, plinking tentatively... maybe even hopefully.  It's a question mark, a raised eyebrow, the barest hint of sun ushering a hard night into light. And after ten tracks which explore the gravity and grace of the drunk, bottomed-out and pantsless, it's absolutely perfect.

Rating: A

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