The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

by Pete Sykes Rating:7.5 Release Date:2010-05-03

You always know where you are with The Hold Steady. After their enjoyable breakthrough effort, Boys and Girls In America, and its follow up, the patchy but often brilliant Stay Positive, Craig Finn's aptly-named band have established themselves as the most utterly dependable purveyors of sentimental Springsteen-esque trad rock that America currently has to offer. Heaven is Whenever, the band's fifth album and the first after the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, sounds exactly like you'd expect. Exactly. Finn has rationalised Nicolay's departure by claiming that the absence of keyboards on the album gives the music "a sense of space," and guitarist Tad Kubler has claimed that the record was influenced by "musical scores and cinematic soundscapes." Whatever. The Hold Steady, despite these claims, still trade in the melodic, guitar driven anthems that they've peddled since Separation Sunday.

So those seeking experimentalism or transgression had better look elsewhere. But for those seeking masterful tunes and punchy choruses, Heaven is Whenever has a few tracks that rank amongst this band's finest. Take the single, 'Hurricane J'. From the glorious opening chords, through Finn's world weary growl on the verse, to the magnificent chorus - surely one of the finest of the year, even though it's only May - it's heady, exhilerating stuff. There are no tricks, no archness: it's all delivered with a captivating sincerity that convinces utterly. Or take 'Soft in the Center'. Musically, it's this album's 'Chips Ahoy!', except that the chorus gives way to a lush, lighters-in-the-air breakdown. Again, it's so sincere and un-ironic that it's impossible not be swept along. Finn's lyrics continue to traverse the bittersweet territory of love, sex and disappointment in small town America, and he's great at seasoning his mini-epics with warmth and detail. A good example of this is 'The Weekenders', whose first line - "There was that whole weird thing with the horses" - is immediately gripping. After this, the song duly delivers another anthemic chorus. There are similarly striking lines scattered across the album; one of my favourites is the ersatz "You're a beautiful girl and a pretty good waitress," on 'Hurricane J' - and Finn's stories walk the fine line between smart and sentimental with aplomb. There's even a bit of humour on 'Rock Problems', which features a riff that could have been lifted from Never Mind the Bollocks, and a wry, self-deprecating lyric ("She said 'I just can't sympathise with your rock n' roll problems'").

It doesn't all work, and some of it sounds rather anonymous, particularly the penultimate 'Our Whole Lives'. They're no good at slow - as they proved on Stay Positive with the wretched 'One For The Cutters' - and 'We Can Get Together' drags after a promising opening. 'Barely Breathing' is unusual and often interesting, but doesn't quite work. 'The Smidge', meanwhile, is a Jekyll and Hyde character - stodgy verses (and dreadful title), sublime bridge and chorus. But none of these tracks is an outright failure, all featuring at least one excellent line or detail that evinces a smile - such as 'We Can Get Together's referencing of Pavement and Hüsker Dü in narrating a love affair conducted through the prism of alternative music. The Hold Steady swim proudly against the tide of musical fashion, instead concentrating on doing their own trad-rock thing, and doing it brilliantly. And, in the words of Paul McCartney: in this ever changing world in which we live in, it's nice to have a band you can rely on to deliver good, old-fashioned rock thrills.

Pete Sykes

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