The Hold Steady :: Heaven is Whenever

Killer parties almost killed The Hold Steady, but then they didn’t. Hallelujah swept up the spotlight; she cleared the dust that kept coming up after all those killer parties. And then we all got up to have a real sad time together but it ended up being not all that sad; that killer party almost saved us, but it didn’t, so we died. And when it all got bloody and we all fell down together, not even Joe Strummer could save us, and we all gently raised our hands like a party slowly dying. Lawd, we can’t be innocent forever.

Writing about Heaven is Whenever, The Hold Steady’s latest release, is difficult. On paper, it’s pretty similar to 2008’s Stay Positive: there are the trademark guitar chuggers (“Rock Problems,” “The Weekenders,” “Our Whole Lives”), the stone-cold ballad (“We Can Get Together”), and a pair of genre stretches (the bottleneck country of “The Sweet Part of the City” and the clarinet-bandied “Barely Breathing”). Craig Finn’s about his usual business, referencing Minnesota and listing off the headliners from those all-ages hardcore matinee shows while conflating Catholicism, rock ‘n’ roll, and everday life. He’s continuing to grow as a vocalist, and Tad Kubler’s riffing and noodling is spreading even further, belying a greater range and aptitude for atmospherics than we might have previously given him credit for. But, but–and I’ve second-guessed myself on this many, many times now because it seems just so unlikely and borderline heretical–Heaven is Whenever at times lacks the vital spirit that has always made The Hold Steady so compelling.

It’s a strange blank space at the base of things and it’s hard to describe, particularly because the songs, when taken individually, are often as good as anything else they’ve ever written. “Our Whole Lives” bangs and rings with conviction, and “Soft in the Center’”s big-love chorus is maybe Finn’s best bit of poetry yet. Even “Hurricane J,” whose Top 40 backing vocals frightened me upon its release as a single into thinking that the group were going all Fountains of Wayne, has broken in and feels pretty good. In fact, Heaven is Whenever, when considered independent of The Hold Steady’s discography, is an excellent, ambitious piece of pop rock, and it would be silly and hyperbolic and very Chicken Little to call it a disappointment. This I know, and I am reminded of it every time I listen to the record. The Hold Steady are growing artistically, becoming more nuanced, more subtle. Kubler’s guitars are more shaded and often less out-front here, and Finn’s mostly abandoned his sputtering story-songs in favor of poetically rich and thoughtful meditations, a lyrical direction hinted at on Stay Positive standout “Slapped Actress.” But that nuance comes at the expanse of those verbose and detail-rich story songs and the towering structures the band built to support them, and while I’m happy to sing along with the group’s newfound vocal melodies and rich harmony, there is and will probably always be a big part of me–and, I suspect, more than a few Hold Steady fans–that will miss the sprawl of words, the shouts from the party pit, and the rich street drama. I suspect that this is what it means to grow up; if the killer parties keep almost killing you, you eventually quit the killer parties.

Heaven is Whenever is a very good, and at times great, album. But it commits the essential crime of not being what we have come to think of as a Hold Steady album. It’s the group’s most mature record, both musically and lyrically, and as the giddiness of those killer parties begins to fade into the background of both life and lyric, it takes with it the ecstasy and hysteria of towering rock anthems. This is probably a good thing–I don’t want Craig Finn to have to write about getting drunk in high school for the rest of his life–and if it feels awkward to say goodbye to that whole scene, we can at least see the promise of a good future.   words/ m garner

MP3: The Hold Steady :: Hurricane J
The Hold Steady :: The Weekenders

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20 thoughts on “The Hold Steady :: Heaven is Whenever

  1. had similar thoughts…love the album, but its missing something that previous THS albums had….oh well, i love it anyway

  2. I don’t know, I listened to this for the first time yesterday and found it very tepid. The playing seemed sluggish, the production (especially the drum sound) is all wrong and it seems like the band is just going through the motions. It’s seems very tired.

  3. Know what you mean. Sort of the same feeling I got when a long-time favorite band of mine, Widespread Panic, forged on after the passing of lead guitarist Mikey Houser in 2002. There was a sound missing…a key sound that made me love their music in the first place. Yet to this day I still listen and still really enjoy their music.

    Could the same sort of thing be affecting The Hold Steady with the leaving of keyboardist Franz Nicolay? Something missing that we have all grown to love. Yet at the same time, the music is still really good.

  4. @Du — The situation with Franz is, in my very subjective opinion, tricky at best. On the one hand, he worked on Heaven is Whenever, and while his keyboard parts have been re-recorded, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the new parts are similar in quality to whatever he might have written, and I think it’s unlikely that the band would have completely rearranged entire songs after his departure. But the comparative lack of keys on this record–and the ways the instrument has bridged together and built upon previous Hold Steady records–makes you wonder.

    At the same time, though, I’ve seen the band live since Franz left, and though his personality is missed, they haven’t dropped an inch of their ground on stage.

    So it’s a pretty difficult question to answer, and I wish I would have spent more of my review tangling with it.

  5. It’s a good review, and I was waiting for the Nicolay reference…oddly your review may recapitulate the album’s problem: the fact that we know something is missing and shouldn’t necessarily care, but still do.

  6. You can only hold steady for so long before needing a new grip on things!

    I saw the band the other night in North San Diego and thought they were great! Franz is gone, but now we get a bursting, coordinated two guitar attack that is magic. Old songs and the new stuff completely kept pace with each other, with “The Smidge” from “Heaven is Whenever” being one of the best moments of the night. I don’t want to hear more and more songs that are the same thing. I thought “Stay Positive” suffered from getting to the end of a good thing as far as that “same old voice.” Your review shows the essential problem of the public taste for what has defined an artist- versus an artist’s need to change and develop.
    The new album doesn’t rely as much on the clever, self referential wink that allowed the Hold Steady to get away with being wanna be guitar gods. Instead “Heaven is Whenever” showcases mood, tone, and production in a way that shows they accept where the journey ( … Journey and Boston for that matter…) has led them- older guys now, with incredible chops, and less need for attitude. These guys haven’t hung with the hoodrats in quite a while now, they’ve moved on to newer sights and sounds. It’s a self assured, gorgeously full album, that delights by being lushly different from what they’ve done before.

  7. I went to the Belly Up show too, and I thought it was uneven at best. A sloppy show that suffered from trying to incorporate a lot of new material into the set. Franz leaving is a big deal. Live shows not the same. Sound is different.

    I think less is more and when you add 2 lead guitars it gets weird. Their not Maiden nor arena rock so wtf?

  8. I guess I was lucky because my perceptions weren’t informed by past experience seeing the band. The new record and guitarist show they have in fact moved much closer to arena rock. They’ve come to sound more like the bands in the the landscapes of their stories. How else is a band so tightly cornered by their narrative tropes going to keep the drama going- but make it fresh?

  9. I’m not a huge Hold Steady fan. I don’t hate them but I don’t love them. However, I feel like well written, super thoughtful reviews like this are why I love Aquarium Drunkard. Keep up the excellent writing fellas. Thank you.

  10. The first thing i noticed after missing Franz was that Craig never mentioned any of the usual suspects from the band’s stories by name. No Gideon, Holly, or Charlemagne!

    The characters are certainly still IN the songs, but not as often, and not as obvious. Definitely feels like they are moving away from the the Twin Cities Punk Scene tales. Or maybe making the bar-stool stories into something more “mythic.” Something that _will_ fill an arena.

    I missed their LA show this time around, but I think they are long over-due to start playing to bigger crowds in some bigger venues.

  11. i completely agree with your reveiw. while the album is catchy and something i enjoy listening to, i miss the characters like charlamagne and gideon and holly. something has changed for sure, and I’m a little nostalgic, but I dont like the hold steady less, and I guess I’ll just keep listening to the old albums along with the new ones. Does anyone else agree with me that heaven is whenever is more musically similar to boys and girls in america? too me those are the two catchy albums, and the other three are the ones with the original hold steady charm. maybe thats just me. although they are similar in my mind boys and girls in america has much more original hold steady (excellent lyricism, talk of killer parties) than heaven is whenever.

  12. @ RY:I was thinking the same , something was missing on the new album, but I put it away for a couple weeks , now I find the album really grows on you,keys are much more subtle and the 2nd guitar adds a more polished sound.The overall production is up a notch as well. I miss the Franz days too, but I didn’t miss him at all seeing them live this July. There were many times I wished I could just turn down Franz’ keyboards and backup vocals in the mix, very evident on the live recording A Positive Rage.. I think HIW is a big step forward for the Hold Steady.Sure, maybe a little less indy, little more arena rock, but it’s great to see a band that Ive been following for 3 years now move from their early core sound to the logical next step in writing, recording and performance.. . Long live the Hold Steady.

  13. i’m really surprised at both this review and all the comments. because i agree with them. all i’ve heard is that this is the greatest living band–but the album just sounds so Done to me, nothing strikes me as new, and i don’t know what to make of it, except that the sort of optimism everyone else seems to show about the development and increasing/relative nuance is lost on me; i’d rather hear the became than the becoming.

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