The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

by Martin Leese
(Manchester, England)

The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever

Review By Martin Leese

This is the fifth album from the Boston-based bar room heavies The Hold Steady, their Bruce Springsteen inflected albums carved out their own special niche with front man Craig Finn maintaining a narrative by holding conversations over songs, often from several different perspectives, rather than singing. Their stream of consciousness hard rock has picked up a loyal fan base, as rather than being pretentious, their songs are always rooted in sympathy and affection for the scenesters, druggies, skinhead mobsters and born again Christians who's life stories they interconnect and unravel.

Their latest album is without curly mustached keyboardist, accordionist, and supplier of vocal harmonies Franz Nicolay. This raised the question of whether this would lead to a return to the rough, improvised feel of The Hold Steadys first three albums, rather than the slightly overblown fourth album Stay Positive in which they seemed to be writing songs for an audience and effect, rather than the prior effect of desperation and that they were compelled to play for themselves and to tell their characters stories.

For the first time, Craig Finn had taken vocal coaching, dropping his trademark vocal style of sounding like he was being interrogated in a police cell, instead trying to be tuneful. The musicianship was impressive, the album complex, but where was the fun? The excitement and thrill of being taken along on a druggy, messed up road trip with low lives watching over their shoulder was replaced with a more mature sense of impending doom, Craig Finn is getting older, and knew better this time, and told a cautionary tale. Recklessness replaced by repentance.

For a new listener, this is a good album; strong singles, religion baiting lyrics, belligerent choruses and a band tight and confident from constant touring writing huge crowd pleasing songs. They have supported Springsteen and The Rolling Stones and are regulars on the Letterman Show in latter years as they lean more toward being everyman hard working rock and rollers.

The album has strong potential singles, with hurricane J and the weekenders guaranteed to get airplay but the quieter moments have the lasting impression. The self reflective barely breathing and the line where were you when the blood got spilled/they almost killed me. Are a reminder of the bizarre nostalgia for street fights and police shakedowns of past albums and for a band whose first three albums had no quiet moments, it is the quiet moments which have the greater impact here.

Heaven Is Whenever will gain them more success and fans, and few bands deserve it more than one of the hardest working bands around. But unlike previous albums I doubt that this will make them anyone's favorite band.

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My name is Andrew Muller. I love creative art, music, television shows, movies, video games, and a good story.

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