You have to remember: The Hold Steady were wizened, wistful veterans when they started. Frontman Craig Finn, fresh off a bruising stint with ’90s Minneapolis hoodrats Lifter Puller, was technically older than Jesus when he spent the boozy, brawling, relocated-to-Brooklyn bar band’s 2005 debut, Almost Killed Me, ranting in that gleefully polarizing, blitzed-preacher power-harangue of his. It was an erudite jumble of profound seediness (“Too many people getting stabbed! Getting tangled up in crabs!”) and corny classic-rock shout-outs (Billy Joel, Phil Lynott, Neal Schon, Meatloaf), his cohorts wantonly bashing away behind him (technically, Finn plays guitar, but he plays guitar the way, like, Bono or Madonna plays guitar), doing an arena-decimating Goldberg Variations routine on “Born to Run.” (A song all rock writers are contractually obligated to associate with these dudes; one album later, Finn would sum up his ethos in just seven delightfully uncouth words: “Tramps like us, and we like tramps.”)
You had to love him, this elder statesman prone to feats of shockingly juvenile self-destruction, such that you also had to avoid emulating him. Don’t have what he’s having. But the farther he gets from the self-destructive stuff that almost killed him (killer parties, the ’80s, this chick who looked just like Beverly Sills), the more he starts to sound, in a not altogether unpleasant way, like your father. It’s no shock that Heaven Is Whenever, the Hold Steady’s fifth album in six years—as thrilling a five-record run as any 21st-century American band you’d care to name—is yet more wizened and wistful. But Finn’s slow evolution from Carnival-Barking Fuck-Up to Carnival-Barking Dispenser of Actually Decent Advice is fascinating. After the fake-out slide-guitar lope of leadoff track “The Sweet Part of the City” (“We were bored so we started a band/We’d like to play for you,” he declares, echoing Almost Killed Me opener “Positive Jam,” that tune’s feral aggression dissolving into this one’s benevolent back-porch reverie), those power chords kick in triumphantly for “Soft in the Center,” which bursts into a sunny, slow-dance chorus designed to soothe lovesick teenage boys the world over:
You can’t get every girl
You’ll get the ones you love the best
You won’t get every girl
You’ll love the ones you get the best
Not his best work, no, but still warm and witty; with every moment of every song on every album, Finn sheds a little more seediness and radiates a little more corniness, embracing his inner Meatloaf. He grows up, in other words. Half of Heaven pays homage to fist-pumping monster riffs of yore: the awesomely named and thoroughly raucous “Rock Problems,” say, or “The Smidge,” which carves up Green Day’s “American Idiot” with robust cowbell and some of our hero’s sharper one-liners (“When we lie to each other, we do it through computers”). But even a full-on corker like “Hurricane J,” simple and primal and glorious—bashing drums and soaring whoa-oh-oh backing vocals to compensate for Finn’s melodic disregard—has subtly changed perspective.
It’s about a girl, yeah, but though ostensibly she’s a lover (“Jesse, let’s go for a ride . . . I know where we could drink and kiss for awhile”), really, Finn’s interest is more paternal. He worries about her friends (“Those kids doesn’t seem positive,” positive being a major concept in the Hold Steady canon) and seems to identify more with her parents (“They didn’t name her for a saint/They named her for a storm”). As with Holly, the tough, troubled heroine who stumbled from drug-addled depravity to born-again Christianity on past records like 2005’s Separation Sunday and 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, you’re meant to want to protect her, not sleep with her. Finn hasn’t really walked among (or smoked up with, or actively lusted after, I’m assuming) those boys and girls for years now; if you still love this band, you probably haven’t either.
So let us age with dignity together. The monster track here is “The Weekenders,” very much a stadium-filling power ballad in the U2 or Kings of Leon vein, Finn somberly revisiting the debauched, allegedly clairvoyant degenerate gamblers of America‘s “Chips Ahoy!,” though he does manage to fire off the record’s single best yearbook quote (“She said, ‘The theme of this party’s the industrial age/And you came in dressed like a train wreck’ “). The big whoop personnel-wise is the departure of titanically jolly keyboardist Franz Nicolay, but his absence is felt more visually (onstage he was basically punk-rock Super Mario) than sonically—lead guitarist (and fellow Lifter Puller cohort) Tad Kubler dominates throughout, and the refurbished band branches out in other ways: “Barely Breathing” drops a daffy clarinet solo between Finn’s inside-baseball hardcore mutterings (skinheads at the Youth of Today show morph a year later into Hare Krishnas at the Shelter show) and a climactic chant of “The kids are all distracted/No one wins at violent shows.”
The inside-baseball stuff is also still important. It’s no mystery why so many rock critics love the Hold Steady: It’s the meta-ness, the rocking out while dissecting the whole notion of rocking out. Heaven gets its title from the slow, gauzy waltz “We Can Get Together,” which either outright drops or subtly hints at a whole Consumer Guide’s worth of boldface names—Pavement, Hüsker Dü, the Psychedelic Furs, Heavenly, Utopia—before the first chorus even hits, the small choir now backing Finn up nearly celestial. The song’s thesis is the record’s, the singer’s, the band’s, the band’s ever-devout and theoretically gracefully aging audience: “Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Lock your bedroom door/And listen to your records.” This isn’t the best record you’ll play, or the best Hold Steady record you’ll play, but it’s still important, still a vital piece of wizened wisdom. “The kids at the shows/They’ll have kids of their own,” Finn sang (sort of) not too long ago; Heaven is designed for both.
The Hold Steady play the Beacon Theatre October 7, which is very far away