Noisey has a 10-year retrospective up on the Hold Steady. It’s a pretty good writeup: it mixes the writer’s personal relationship to the music with quotes from the band’s primary creators, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler. The whole thing is worthy of your time, but this paragraph specifically stuck out in my head.
After that virtuosic run of albums, the Hold Steady released the very good Stay Positive in 2008, capitalizing on their newfound status as the most righteous band in indie rock. (I mean, look at that title.) What happened next was, by the band’s account, a little trying. A European tour was canceled on the eve of setting out because of Kubler’s bout with pancreatitis. After putting out four albums in five years, the band found themselves pushing harder to complete out the next.
“It was rushed,” Kubler says of the 2010 release, Heaven is Whenever. “Not everybody was on the same page, and I don’t think there was a lot of communication.” (It should be noted that my interviews with Finn and Kubler are conducted separately.)
Longtime keyboardist Franz Nicolay, whose contributions were crucial to the sweeping melodrama of Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America, left during the making of Heaven is Whenever, and had some unkind things to say to say about their direction. He will not make a sentimental reappearance during the show, sadly, and Kubler doesn’t refer to him by name when his contributions come up.
When people talk about the Hold Steady, what they are really talking about is the band’s first three albums (or, if I’m being honest, their second and third). What they aren’t talking about is the band’s later work, which has largely been derided, even by the band itself, if this Noisey piece is correct. I’m not going to go to bat and suggest that anything the Hold Steady and its affiliated put out after 2006 was as good as its run from 2002 to 2005, but there’s enough good there that it should not be completely overlooked.
Event at their worst, the Hold Steady is better than most. Here’s a quick primer to their lesser known and late period work.
“Lord I Am Discouraged,” Stay Positive: I’m not as nuts about Stay Positive as some of my peers are (both the album and the song, the latter I think is vastly overrated), but I love me a guitar solo. This slow-jam boasts the album’s best by far.
“Quiet Where I Lie,” Major General by Franz Nicolay: The breakup between Franz Nicolay, the mustached keyboard player who’s runs gave wings to the band’s best moments on Boys and Girls in America, and the rest of the Hold Steady is well-documented as acrimonious. Personally, Nicolay’s solo work doesn’t justify his departure, but Major General has a handful of strong moments. “Quiet Where I Lie” stands tallest of them all, and incidentally sounds the most like a Hold Steady song.
“New Friend Jesus,” Clear Heart Full Eyes by Craig Finn: Finn’s one solo album is a hit-and-miss collection of cracked alt-country that plays both like a much needed departure from his full-time gig and a testing ground for future Hold Steady work. “New Friend Jesus” is a sly song, one of Finn’s funniest and the most removed from his bar-rock leanings.
“Our Whole Lives,” Heaven is Whenever: For my money, about half of Heaven is Whenever is strong, quality song crafting. It shoots 50%, which is about what Steph Curry, the best scorer in the NBA, shoots. For any other band, that’s a great split, considering how many albums are released with no more than three good songs, if that. Of course, this isn’t any other band. The Hold Steady set the bar so high with their previous albums (Stay Positive notwithstanding) that any dip in quality would be glaring.
History may not be kind to Heaven is Whenever when all is said and done for the Hold Steady, but people should take another look at “Our Whole Lives,” which echoes the band’s earliest work while illustrating how it’s guitar-heavy sound could work going forward.
“Barely Breathing,” Heaven is Whenever: Songs about being punk then not being punk anymore are my bread and butter.