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The Hold Steady defies expectations on latest album

Ryan Raffin | Monday, September 1, 2008

The anticipation surrounding the release of the Hold Steady’s newest album, “Stay Positive,” is immense.

The critical acclaim heaped on them has only increased with each successive album. Their third, 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America,” was hailed as a masterwork, and rightly so. It recalled the classic rock that influenced the band, while maintaining a lyrical mindset firmly rooted in modern society. And the lyrics, while on the subject, were brilliant, with references to Jack Kerouac – check the album title – and poet John Berryman in the first song alone. So, of course, expectations would be high for the follow-up.

But does “Stay Positive” satisfy? In a word, yes. It is everything one could hope for. Actually, if you were hoping it would solve the housing crisis, you’d be let down, so it’s almost everything one could hope for. Regardless, any apprehension upon listening to the album or any worrying that it might disappoint immediately disappear.

Things kick off with “Constructive Summer,” a summer anthem about living for the moment and seizing the day, and about taking tired clichés like those and stripping them bare to reveal the beating heart underneath. It shouts out Joe Strummer of the Clash and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” and it’s joyous and fun, the sort of song that sounds best while driving during a sunny day with friends. If you listen hard enough, you can pick out some of the album’s lyrical themes, like those of Catholic imagery and growing up. The latter is something one would imagine lead singer/guitarist/lyricist Craig Finn struggles with increasingly at 37 years old.

The first single, “Sequestered in Memphis,” is as catchy a song as the band has ever written. Handclaps, horns and backing vocals make a chorus of “Subpoenaed in Texas / Sequestered in Memphis” far more infectious than the verbose lyrics would seem to allow. The song details, in a storytelling style, a questionable hook-up by the narrator, who could be Craig Finn but likely isn’t. Are the lyrics based on real events? Probably not, but who cares? It’s a great story. Finn’s approach is similar to that of Bruce Springsteen’s – telling stories of working class kids who are desperate and jaded. Aside from the E-Street-esque piano appearing on nearly every song, this is where the band gets their oft-quoted Springsteen influence.

Things slow down for “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” one of the album’s many standout tracks. Telling the tale of a friend who has fallen into drug abuse, the song has Finn questioning God, wondering why his friend hasn’t been saved. When he sings “So I mostly just pray she don’t die,” the pain is palpable. Not only one of the best songs on the album, it certainly stands among the finest and most powerful the band has ever written, with a guitar solo that matches the song’s tragedy with its epic scope.

While the upbeat songs range from the merely good, like “Yeah Sapphire” and “Navy Sheets,” to the great, like the title track, the songs that cut the deepest are the slower ones. Aside from the aforementioned “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” tracks like “Both Crosses” and “Slapped Actresses” are stunners, all slow burn and introspection. There are references to murder and Christianity, to the late director John Cassavettes and to his wife Gena Rowlands. As “Slapped Actresses” closes out the album on a chorus of “whoa-ohs,” it’s obvious that the Hold Steady weren’t shaken by having all eyes on them. No, instead of succumbing to the pressure, they pulled up their bootstraps and produced another masterpiece.

“Stay Positive” is one more fine entry in the catalogue of an excellent band. Not only that, it is without question one of the best records of the year, growing better with each listen. Having your expectations lived up to is uncommon, but having them exceeded is extraordinary. It’s tough to even imagine how they’re going to follow this up, but the way they’re going, no one will be let down.