The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
There is a point on Boys and Girls in America that marks the line the Hold Steady have apparently crossed. It's the chorus on the second tratck, a churning anthem dubbed "Chips Ahoy!," where it's a bit hard to tell just what Craig Finn is singing (...singing?) because he can't quite shout loud enough to be heard over a traffic-jam racket of "oh-oh-ho-oh-oh-hohhhh-oh" backup vocals and monolithic rhythm/piano/organ/guitar/guitar/guitar/guitar! noise. Welcome the new(ish) Hold Steady: slicker, more obvious (if more relatable), more riffs, more force, more exclamation points, more debt to the classic-rock company store, more backup singers, and more melody from one Craig Finn, owner of rock's greatest hectoring narrative yell. If "less is more"—as guitarist Tad Kubler described the formative structure of this record—this album must've been made with practically nothing.
Which is about the worst you can say about it, really. It's good to hear the band pushing the epic reach of their music to match the epic reach of their everything-else, and if that dredges up a litany of Springsteen comparisons, so be it. (Finn wrote songs called "11th Ave Freezeout" and "Candy's Room" back in the day; I'm figuring the recent Born to Run comparisons in the press took long enough.) A few other critics cite Thin Lizzy; given the Hold Steady's interest in Irish Catholic imagery, paired guitars, drinking, and rhyming phrases with "Phil Lynott," that makes plenty of sense, too. And we can throw another name into the mix: Lifter Puller. Particularly the band as they existed in 1997, when Half Dead and Dynamite heralded their metamorphosis from a Midwestern pseudo-Pavement into myth-making indie-hard-rock local cult heroes. Finn was the only member of the group who would go on to the Hold Steady (Kubler didn't join until the following year), and on Half Dead more than any other Lifter Puller or Hold Steady album, he foreshadowed the kind of project Boys and Girls in America would become: less an enigmatic fable about a scene and a core group of people than a loosely strung series of moments and places, sung in a voice more concerned with conveying mood than providing narrative detail.
Not that the world outlined in Boys and Girls is without detail. A couple of songs still skirt that familiar young-and-wasted turf: "Chillout Tent" has a darkly funny premise—two kids on some bad stuff hook up amidst a crowd of comatose OD victims ("They started kissin' when the nurses took off their IVs/It was kinda sexy, but it was kinda creepy")—although the sugary chorus from Dave Pirner and the Reputation's Elizabeth Elmore torpedoes the mood. The prom dance scenario of "Massive Night" is filled with giggly Steve Nieve keyboards that add some light-headedness to Finn's paeans to teenage debauchery ("The dance floor was crowded, the bathrooms were worse/We kissed in your car and we drank from your purse"). But the hoodrats and skaters whom listeners have become well-acquainted with over the last couple of albums largely recede into the distance. Having aged out of the familiar adolescent affiliations that defined earlier characters in the Hold Steady's milieu, the songs' burnout party casualties wander about with car-wreck lives, the dealers and lowlifes skulking around the margins.
When the cast of last year's Separation Sunday returns for a fleeting moment in the middle of the record, Holly's breakdown-slash-epiphany distills the album's theme into one vivid line: "Holly's inconsolable/Unhinged and uncontrollable/Cuz we can't get as high as we got on that first night." Boys and Girls is largely about the diminishing returns and quick come-downs that drove Holly to Jesus, about how the good times are growing old, just like the people who seek them out.
The other point of note on the aforementioned "Chips Ahoy!" is the line where Finn mutters "I love this girl/But I can't tell when she's having a good time"—despite the fact that she spends most of her time getting high, she's fallen into a state of stasis: "How'm I s'posed to know that you're high if you won't let me touch you/How'm I s'posed to know that you're high if you won't even dance?" All that rock bluster—just like the Hold Steady you know, only more so—almost sounds like it's there to compensate for the thinning peaks of a chemical life. While it was never especially glamorous before, there's a more explicit insularity to it now, less a social lubricant than an antisocial propellant. "Gonna walk around/Gonna walk around/Gonna walk around and drink," Finn sings at the end of "Party Pit," and beneath that chant-along chorus lies the futility of the idea that either of those things can take you anywhere. But even in the midst of that ennui, he doesn't sound alone—lyrics aside, the Hold Steady play like a tight-knit unit of social drinkers. And the uncanny sense of navigation that Finn's Twin Cities background necessitated has sprawled outward: "Take Lyndale to the horizon/Take Nicollet out to the ocean," he directs on closer "Southtown Girls"—not so much aimless as it is beholden to the idea that you can get anywhere from here. If you've got a reason to leave, at least.
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