For more than 15 years, first as the leader of the Minneapolis underground band Lifter Puller and since 2003 as frontman for the classic-rock inspired and Brooklyn-based Hold Steady, Craig Finn has been writing songs about being young. He's created an entire universe of characters on the edge of adulthood—drinking too much, making bad decisions, hooking up and breaking up, forming bands and staying up all night. Now that middle age is approaching, Finn's perspective has started to change.
"On the last record, Stay Positive, we were obsessed with aging gracefully," he says. "So for this album I think we went ahead and just did it. Heaven Is Whenever is informed by being 38 years old and also being a band on its fifth record. Contentment is not always the easiest place to write from. ‘Sweet Part of the City' is going back to when you're in your early 20s and have an apartment in the cool part of town. It's expensive and small but it's enough to keep you satisfied for a while. But a couple of years later you start to get a little restless."
Being satisfied is the major theme of Heaven Is Whenever, which presents many of its songs in the past tense, a first for Finn. Until now, the Hold Steady has been about aspiration, hope, and the possibility of second chances; as Finn closes in on 40, he seems more interested in what happens after those second chances. As the album title indicates, Heaven Is Whenever is about accepting what you've got and where you ended up. Stay Positive sounds like a self-help mantra; Heaven Is Whenever sounds like a Zen koan.
"The songs are coming from someone who's a little older and hopefully wiser," he says. "The overall theme is that everything will be all right."
The band's sound has changed slightly but significantly over the same time. The 2004 debut The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me sounded like the cool, detached art-punk group Lifter Puller playing at being a bar band. The classic-rock infusions gradually became more ingrained; by the time of Stay Positive, the band was earning legitimate comparisons to Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. On Heaven Is Whenever, the sound is stripped and refined to riff-rock basics. (Keyboard player Franz Nicolay left the band earlier this year and wasn't involved in the recording sessions.)
Part of what's made Finn's long-running cast of characters so compelling is his juxtaposition of seedy bar scenes and overdoses with Catholic imagery. There's the girl in "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" who has visions of St. Teresa and "Jesus Lived and Died for All Your Sins" tattooed on her back; there's the recurring character Holly, whose real name is Hallelujah, who crashes an Easter mass in a drug-induced haze and wakes up in a confession booth; Finn even manages to rhyme "Judas" with "Massachusetts" in the song "Both Crosses."
"There's the communal aspect, the shared experiences," Finn says, explaining how such explicit religious imagery fits into his songs. "Rock 'n' roll can resemble a church service in that way. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and what that means—concepts like love your neighbor and forgiveness and redemption—those are beautiful things that apply to everyone's everyday life. It's my own way of dealing with that and trying to explain it. Plus, they're both all about faith."
The other pillar of Finn's mythology is his hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Specific locations in the city were frequently mentioned in Lifter Puller songs, and the city serves as a distant backdrop for the stories Finn tells with the Hold Steady. His New York characters are all recent arrivals, not native New Yorkers, and their presumed hometown is almost always Minneapolis. Finn says being away from the city has been almost as important as the city itself in the way he feels about the place.
"I'll have been gone for 10 years in September," he says. "It's still where I feel most comfortable. It's a very honest and sincere place. If I wasn't setting something in Minneapolis, it would be less sincere and honest. It's somewhere I feel comfortable with.
"It took a couple of years of being away to realize what makes it such a unique place. The Mississippi River runs right through the middle of the city. It starts there—it's the head of something very American and romantic."