It’s a stupid question, whether Hold Steady singer Craig Finn means it when he sings his little classic-rock stories of squalid, wasted youth. Does any singer or songwriter ever really mean it, or not? What does it even mean to “mean it?”
A stupid question, but still, it haunts the Hold Steady, celebrated as “God’s bar band” by Rob Sheffield in the most recent issue of Blender. The Hold Steady is a bar band the same way the Blues Brothers were. The Hold Steady is about being a bar band. It’s a funhouse built on self-reference and sketched pseudo-populist narratives that’s often clever, occasionally heartfelt, usually fist-pumping, and totally bewildering.
An early favorite on the band’s fourth album, Stay Positive, is “Sequestered in Memphis,” a Springsteen pastiche that resonates without ever hitting its marks. It has a full bag of tricks—a horn section, piano, a breakdown, barroom scenes, a rented Mustang, the shadow of significant legal trouble (“Subpoenaed in Texas, / Sequestered in Memphis”)—but it’s essentially a list of allusions to things that stand in for “cool.” That’s followed by “One for the Cutters,” a ridiculous tale of college-town violence made all the more ridiculous by its prominent harpsichord.
Finn has an ear for a stirring couplet (“Some nights it’s just entertainment / Some other nights it’s work,” “Now I’m not really sure we were lovers / Or if it was just some kind of car crash”), but on Stay Positive his talent’s showing cracks. The corn-fed small-town homilies on “Constructive Summer” and “Yeah Sapphire” never ring true, and Finn’s lapsed Catholicism finally goes batshit on “Both Crosses,” in which he rhymes “Judas” with “Massachusetts.” His romanticism is showing itself for what it is.