Cotton Candy on the Edge of Town

On the uneasily triumphant Hold Steady, once nearly dead, now born to run

Sunday, October 1, 2006, might be remembered as the Hold Steady's happiest day together. That night: embraced by a riotous crush of hometown fans at Irving Plaza, launching a sizable U.S. tour. That morning: The New York Times runs a deferential (if perplexingly vague) profile in praise of the band. And perhaps more significantly, the next day Pitchfork (which I contributed to for years) awarded their new album Boys and Girls in America the site's best rating of the year so far, a 9.4 out of 10.

Yet that review says little about the record, instead seeking to position the Brooklyn band as the American equivalent of Britain's malaise lounge champions, Pulp. The band laughed to read it, and I make it the most glaring example in recent memory of a critic being enamored of his own conceit to the exclusion of reality. Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn is an awkward, cherubic beer drinker from Minneapolis who bleats Beat poetry over muscle car ballads; Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker is an effete, tuberculin fashion vampire with a history of cocaine abuse that's cut a jawline so sharp it could render lead origami.

As with the Killers' latest, Sam's Town, absolutely everyone that's discussed Boys and Girls in Americahas pointed out its subservient debt to Bruce Springsteen. Unlike the Killers, whose exposure to the Boss appears to begin and end with Tunnel of Love, the Hold Steady mine the more potent early works, stopping their survey at Nebraska after a long pause on the banks of The River. The influence is so obvious, the band's bio is based around it; "the Springsteen thing," as Craig calls it, is all critics are talking about. Guitarist Tad Kubler bristles at the overuse. "Because there's piano? What about Thin Lizzy or Cheap Trick? And the Zeppelin thing never really comes up, which blows my mind. . . . I mean, I'm going to have to send Jimmy Page a check at some point!" Finn is more contrite: "Growing up in Minneapolis, Paul Westerberg was the biggest influence, but denying Springsteen would just be silly. I'm trying to say universal things by being specific, and nobody did that better."

Despite our best efforts, Bruce Springsteen couldn't be reached for comment on all this, because he's practically dead. He's 100,000 years old. Have we reached the point where we'll celebrate a band for how overtly or exactly they imitate a predecessor? If ever an album should prompt this question, it's Boys and Girls, but critics seem to be allying themselves with the Hold Steady's great crossover potential, cheering them on rather than evaluating what's changed and why. Finn concedes veteran producer John Agnello's hand in steering the group toward "small-C classic rock" structuralism—praising his ability to get their live energy to tape—but Agnello's pullquote from their new bio is brutal: "Boys and Girls has all the intensity of a modern-day Born to Run."

Born to Run is arguably the most famous, consistently lauded long-player in the history of American rock music. When you're in the studio and your drummer starts playing a Boss melody on the piano during setup, you're supposed to throw something at him, laugh, and say, "That's why you're the drummer." It would seem the Hold Steady are not throwing things at their drummer.

At his best, Craig now summons a sober Shane MacGowan as much as the Boss ("Stuck Between Stations," bounding lead single "Chips Ahoy!"), with comparably informed poetics and a resolve missing from frayed earlier efforts. On this album he is markedly sharper and swifter with the churning narrative chicken scratch he's made his name on, but that leads to a different problem: The self-awareness he's always exhibited—and his habit of repeating his cleverest, most poetic lines—now play as a bid for communal lighter-hoisting rather than a reminder to get a fresh beer. "I've had kisses that make Judas seem sincere," a line from the otherwise excellent ballad "Citrus," is a Class-A offender, walking off with all the subtlety of "Streets of Philadelphia." The band will be the first to tell you that a few of the new rave-ups are variations on a theme, and bluntly, that not everything on this album works: "We set out to make a record a year," says Finn, "which keeps us from getting stuck or going off the rails, but it also means every one isn't going to be your Masterpiece."

The "Bruce thing," "America's best bar band," Craig Finn as a Catholic-guilt bard in the corner: These are the accolades, but the real story of this record is not what or who it sounds like, whether it's the best record of 2006, or even "Can the Hold Steady find mainstream success?" It has a meeker and more personal purpose, as a rope the Hold Steady is fashioning to pull itself out of a dank hole dug by boundless praise. Separation Sunday, last year's drugs-are-killing-the-Midwest melodrama, was the Hold Steady's breakthrough with critics and campuses, but it left them fearing that folks read too much into Finn's depraved dioramas. Ultimately, the band doesn't want the reputation Sunday earned them, as drunken, down-and-out dudes too old and rumpled to enjoy the ripest fruit.

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