It pains me to say it, but The Hold Steady is in a slump. Stay Positive was alright, but nowhere near on par with either of the two prior albums. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay departed after that album, and while I was sad to go, I was cautiously hopeful that the personnel change would shake up the band’s formula a little bit and make them try something fresh.
No such luck. In their new album, Heaven is Whenever, it’s the same band minus one guy, both for better and worse. A couple of the songs are serious rockers (see “Rock Problems” above), but mostly the old formula is starting to show serious signs of strain. On Stay Positive, Tad Kubler’s guitar solos were absolutely majestic (re: “Lord, I’m Discouraged”), but here it seems like he’s painted himself into a stylistic corner that echoes the band’s larger woes.
At least Craig Finn is taking his lyrics in new directions. There’s been a definite progression from Lifter Puller to early Hold Steady to current Hold Steady, with Finn’s persona going from panicked burnout to wiser older brother telling you a story about his more messed up days, to cool uncle giving you some friendly advice. Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Soft in the Center” (“You gotta get yourself right, kid”) and “Hurricane J” (“I don’t want you to settle/ I want you to grow.”).
Telling, a big chunk of the album–including the aforementioned “Rock Problems,” and the subpar “The Smidge”–is about ennui. “Now we never going dancing / ’cause we’re not really moving,” Finn sings on the latter song, and I have to say, I know the feeling. The heart-pounding, fist-pumping exuberance is just mostly absent this time around, although god knows the guys are trying. And every once and a while, like on the penultimate song, “Our Whole Lives,” something special breaks through. These guys are still the best meat-and-potatoes rock band going, but they need to get themselves right.