I wish I could say I was a Hold Steady fan from day one, but the truth is I didn't start listening to them until 2006's brilliant Boys and Girls in America, and even then, I wasn't sold at first. I could tell there was something there for me, I just couldn't figure out what that was. It took a little while; a couple of months listening to the record at least once on an almost daily basis, trying to decipher some code that would provide me the key to unlocking the mysteries of this band that so many indie-media hounds and "clustered-up, clever kids" who were obsessed with "the scene" adored. Then one day it plowed into me like a mac-truck. I still didn't know what hit me exactly, I just knew that I was lying on the ground with pulverized bones and blood pouring from my open and confused mouth. 11 days from now, The Hold Steady will release their fifth album, Heaven is Whenever, and although I haven't heard it yet, I can guarantee it will be the best album released in 2010. (Just as a side note, I now have heard the album. I attempted as best I could to avoid listening to it until the record came out, but NPR's free stream of the album proved to be too great a temptation. Oh, and by the way, I was right.)
I know this to be true. I know this because 1.) The Hold Steady are the best American Rock n' Roll band recording today, but mainly because 2.) I have realized something about The Hold Steady. I have realized that The Hold Steady know something about Rock n' Roll music that most bands have either forgot or never knew in the first place; Rock n' Roll is music for the young.
The greatest records in the pantheon of Rock music have been written and recorded by aged musicians (When it comes to Rock n' Roll, I consider anyone over the age of 24 "aged") recapturing the spirit of youth: Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (that one's got a whole lot of other shit going on too, but still...), literally everything The Ramones did pre-Too Tough to Die, virtually every Kiss record made before Unmasked, pretty much every Thin Lizzy album recorded between the years of 1973 through 1977 (the "great, youthful Rock n' Roll exception" here is Thin Lizzy's exquisite Black Rose: A Rock Legend, which is quite possibly the absolute antithesis of youthful, and also quite possibly the band's greatest achievement, but Thin Lizzy was one of the greatest Rock bands in history, those dudes made everything sound kick-ass...Well, not everything. 1981's Renegade and 1983's Thunder and Lightening are not so good; the keyboard had no place in the music of Thin Lizzy.)
Even great Rock that has no overt lyrical or thematic ties to youth still embody the spirit of the young in its sound: Zeppelin, The Flaming Lips, The Replacements, everything Justin Hawkins has touched, C.C.R., Nirvana, T. Rex, Ryan Adams (sometimes, maybe often), Bowie, Lucero, basically every metal band from the 80's and early 90's, etc., etc., etc. But recently, something has changed. New rock music, I guess what hipster's refer to as "Indie", has shifted the focus from experienced guys recalling what it meant to be young and stupid and free and, well, just pretty fucking awesome to younger guys trying to sound older, wiser, more mature. (I know I'm generalizing, but frankly, I like to make broad, sweeping declarations about the way I perceive the world, especially when those perceptions are music related, and even more so when those perceptions are fact.) As a result, the world of Rock music has started to kind of suck. (Again, this a generalization. I know there are a lot of "grown-up" bands making (or made) remarkably brilliant music: Wilco, Joy Division, Bon Iver, Sigur Rós, Built to Spill, Pearl Jam, Cursive, the ethereal genius of The Cure; again, etc., etc., etc. There are always exceptions to the rule, it's just that in this case, the exceptions comprise around 40% of the good Rock music out there, and The Cure comprise about ½ of that 40%.)
The fact is, Rock n' Roll has always been liberating because it allows the "older folks" to relive and get lost in the memory of what it felt like to be 17, while simultaneously giving the lifestyle of the Seventeener meaning, but now, the Seventeener is trying to be a Twenty-Sevener. (This is a problem for multiple and more obvious reasons, but mainly, what self-respecting 27 year-old is going to take advice from a 22 year-old kids on how you're supposed to feel when you are 27?) What are we left with? We are left with a bunch of kids pretending to understand what it means to be us (maybe I should say "me", someone under the age of 24 might read this, though I doubt it.)
What happened to the escapism of Rock music? What happened to falling in love with a song and falling into a song, forgetting the things that ail you, feeling young and strong because the music feels young and strong? It appears that The Hold Steady must have sucked up all of that energy and are using it solely for themselves, because they are the only ones writing tunes that feel classic, inspired, young, and rockin' (Exceptions...Lucero and Hot Leg, look them up, learn something). But as sad as it is that only one American band out there is truly capturing the spirit of youth and playing real fucking Rock n' Roll, that one band has decided to dole that energy out in spades.
Craig Finn's songs are about firsts: the first hand-hold, the first kiss, the first fuck, the first epic party, the first beer, the first time you decide you are, in fact, invincible, the first time you spend all night next to the toilet vomiting up fire and blue from too much Five O'Clock Vodka and "Mountain Blast" Powerade, cursing yourself from ever suffering from the delusion that you were, in fact, invincible, the first time you fuck over someone you like for no good reason, the first time someone who likes you fucks you over for no good reason. They're all about love and lust and drugs and booze and music and drugs and friends and booze and enemies and hopes and dreams and drugs and failure and despair and booze. Craig Finn's songs aren't about memories though. The mind tends to filter out the bad and leaves only the good when we're dealing with memories. Everyone has a great memory about the biggest party they went to in high school or college, but no one ever seems to have memories about how awful they felt the next morning. Those latter kind of recollections are for people who don't deal in memories, they simply remember things. And Craig Finn definitely remembers.
His songs are not nostalgic; there is no sentimentality clouding up his images of youth. They are lyrics that are about what it felt like to be 17, but clearly from a 38 year-old's perspective. He remembers that being young was amazing and painful and sometimes detrimental to the remainder of your life. Some people do all the wrong things until they graduate High School, and then they go to College and still do all the wrong things but at more appropriate times, and then they graduate after figuring out ways to occasionally do the right things and they get a job and come out relatively unscathed. They may still choose to exhibit occasional bad behavior, but they recognize that there are right times to do the wrong things and work within the confines of this socially-constructed yet still liberating structure.
Some kids aren't so lucky. Some kids lose their innocence earlier than others. Some kids do all the wrong things and never figure out that there are better times than others to be wrong. Some kids become adults who just keep doing all the wrong things. Some kids become adults who end up never doing anything right. Craig Finn knows that, and he knows that when we were 17, all of us were friends regardless of what are inevitable (or not-so-inevitable) destinations might be. Some were on the road to success, others were on a crash-course with disaster, but for at least a little while, we all partied together at that fork in the road, taking shots of Black Velvet from a plastic half-gallon jug and chasing it with warm cans of Hamm's and choking down Marlboro Reds while listening to The Police on somebodies crappy car stereo. Some times were great, others were shitty, but they were all times we had when we were younger and these times were magical because of that. High School wasn't great, but being 17 was. College was better, but still not always great, but being 21 was. This is the crux of The Hold Steady's music, the reality of being young; black and white, good and bad, success and failure, we'll always experience both, but all of the bad shit was sufferable as long as we were young when we were suffering.
Craig Finn writes lyrics about being a kid but for people who no longer are. The "old-timers" get it because his words are honest and sincere, and they remind us of how it felt to be young and indestructible. The kids get it because his words are honest and sincere, and they validate their existence, validate exactly who they are at the exact moment in time that they are listening to them. He somehow manages to write lyrics that mean completely different yet equally important things to two very different groups of people.
And that's only the lyrics. The music, well, I could describe the music, but I don't need to. The Hold Steady are writing songs that are as unique, original, and good as the best bands out there (if not better), but I'm guessing you've heard them before. If you've ever been listening to a song with friends at 1 a.m. and felt compelled to sing every word at top volume in each others faces just because you were there, the beer was cold, there was still a half pack of smokes in your pocket, and the song was just that fucking good, then you've heard it before because that's who The Hold Steady are and what The Hold Steady do. The Hold Steady write music that's meant to be listened to at top volume while driving in the summer with the windows rolled down and no particular place to go. They write the kind of music you listen to while getting ready to go out for a "massive night", only to cut your evening short so you can go home and listen to The Hold Steady again.
If you can hear the opening riff to "Slapped Actress" and think that these guys aren't as Rock as fuck, then I'm not sure what to say to you. If you can put on "Your Little Hoodrat Friend", and not smile at the lead-in to the chorus, I'm not sure I understand you. If you can listen to even just the first 20 seconds of "Hot Soft Light" and not be convinced that this is some of the most kick-ass, serious, and essential Rock n' Roll that you've ever heard, than I don't think there's a thing I can say here that's going to make you think differently. And to be honest, I wouldn't want to, because if you can listen to these songs and not feel those things, then you don't deserve to listen to The Hold Steady.
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