Two years is too long to wait for another Hold Steady album, but come May 4th, the wait will be over. Fans had been teased for some months after a video of a new song popped up on YouTube titled “Heaven Is Whenever”— now titled “We Can Get Together”— but then the internet went silent. That was until word had spread That Franz Nicolay had left the band, devastating news that left the band significantly less mustachioed.
Frontman/guitarist/songwriter Craig Finn has gone on record saying that this record will be “less anthematic and more complex”, leaving hardcore fans wondering what The Hold Steady has in store for them. Fortunately for the faithful, everything we have come to know and love about The Hold Steady is still here, including catchy sing-along choruses, songs about girls and partying, and a heaping dose of nostalgia. Leading up to the release of Heaven Is Whenever, the band has released four new songs: “Hurricane J”, “Rock Problems”, “The Weekenders”, and “Barely Breathing”, each song teasing us until the album is released.
The first song released off Heaven…, “Hurricane J” is pretty anthemic and fairly straightforward. This song is what we have come to expect from The Hold Steady: a song that draws deep from the well of teenage nostalgia. Referencing working as a waitress and places where you can “drink and kiss for a while”, Craig Finn paints a portrait of a destructive girl and the boy who thinks he’s not good enough for her, but wishes her the best. This isn’t a break-up song so-to-speak; it’s a song about letting go and moving on. When Finn wails during the bridge, “They didn’t name her for a saint/They named her for a hurricane…” you know where he’s coming from. The real striking difference between “Hurricane J” and other Hold Steady songs is the production. The production on this track is pristine and everything has been polished and spit-shined; leaving a clean sound, but not sterile by any means. The song has a real power to it and I dare you to not sing along to the “Oh, ohs” in the chorus.
The Hold Steady is a rock band, and they play rock music. So I guess it can be safely assumed that they have “Rock Problems”. The song is a straight-ahead rocker with chunky distorted classic rock riffs, Tad Kuebler’s sparing but inspired arena rock solos, and Craig Finn’s unmistakable vocals. The song follows a narrative of druggy girls, and conversations about shows where the sound sucks. “Rock Problems” is a song in the vein of previous songs like “Stay Positive” and “Same Kooks”: fast, furious and fun. The production once again stands out as pristine but without stifling the band and smoothing out the rougher edges. The song gives the band enough room to complain about their rock problems in a truly rocking fashion.
This is the first Hold Steady song that reminds me of U2. But before the “indier than thou” elitists begin yelling at their computer screens or puking on their keyboards, allow me to explain myself. The verse guitar parts are drenched in reverb and echo, an obvious ode to The Edge. But U2 this is not (thankfully). Craig Finn is the lyricist Bono wishes he could be and though the guitar parts at time owe a debt of gratitude to the Edge, the chorus packs a soaring, anthemic punch and the song becomes a force to be reckoned with. This is the first “power ballad” the Hold Steady has written that truly has power behind it. Quiet tension explodes into awesome power when Finn cries, “I remember the metal bar” and the chorus of "ohs" and soaring guitars wrap you up and never let you go.
This is the first song released that truly feels “less anthematic and more complex.” It has a gypsy folk stomp that almost recalls Gogol Bordello, and the horns and swirling background instrumentation makes this a truly original Hold Steady song, and a disorienting one at that. The song has violence at its core, starting out at a street fight and ending at violent shows, as Finn cries, “No one wins at violent shows.” It’s the first song released off Heaven Is Whenever that truly feels different. It’s a refreshing change of pace when a band that has been so awesomely consistent throws a satisfying curveball. If this is what heaven is like, then I can’t wait.
Nick Van Huis