After one or two or 12 rounds, few finer drinking games exist than Hold Steady Mad-Libs. It’s like freestyling for music nerds. As Shock G once said, it’s real easy to do—check it out: “I was [synonym for ‘relaxing’] in [midsized Midwestern city] at the [place where underage people hang out], and we were doing [illicit drug]. Then I saw [girl’s name], and she was doing [drug no. 2], and she was pretty [synonym for ‘messed-up’], so I told her [clever reworking of popular cliché], but she was kind of [high], and soon the two of us were [sexual act/religious act/shaking and twitching kind of like I was smoking].”
Oversimplification? Sure. But by now, the Hold Steady have the formula down pat: lyrics full of weary, wounded protagonists groping for transcendence through drugs, religion, or sex. Ever self-referential, frontman Craig Finn opens the band’s fourth album, Stay Positive, with the declaration that “our psalms are sing-along songs,” an obvious truth to anyone familiar with the boozy catharsis of the New York City quintet’s live shows. The first album without Holly or Charlemagne, two staple characters in Finn’s intricate, interwoven teenage-mythology-as-songbook, Positive introduces a new host of characters, predictably damaged and dazed, finding the years starting to catch up with them and realizing that there are consequences for their actions: a bored, rich college girl unwittingly finds herself an accomplice to murder (“One for the Cutters”); a worn-out groupie is no longer able to elicit eye contact (“A Joke About Jamaica”); our narrator laments that all his friends are “dying or already dead” (“Constructive Summer”).
Were it not for Finn’s gimlet-eyed observations and facility in articulating a sense of triumphant fatigue, all of this would probably descend into self-parody, yet it never does. Chalk it up to a sly sense of humor that always lurks around this band, ready to dissolve any heavy-handedness. Equally important is their continued move toward a greater sonic variance. While the reviews early in their career rarely went past the Replacements and Springsteen comparisons, the Hold Steady have now graduated from tedious “bar-band” associations, with “One for the Cutters” gainfully employing a harpsichord sound for a haunted Renaissance Faire feel, while J Mascis plucks a banjo on “Both Crosses,” and “Stay Positive” and “Lord I’m Discouraged” nick Randy Newman and Desire-era Dylan, respectively.
Though the result doesn’t quite reach the rarefied heights of 2005’s Separation Sunday or the following year’s nearly equally great follow-up, Boys and Girls in America, it fits nicely alongside LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver and the National’s Boxer as a poignant example of veteran artists maturing gracefully, capturing that feeling you get just after the peak, when you’ve started noticing the decline but haven’t figured out what to do about it yet.