Critics of The Hold Steady will tell you this band keeps making the same song, the same album, over and over. (Harsher critics say they’re just aping Springsteen.) There is truth in both assessments, but they miss the point. The Hold Steady have a distinct sound and are consistent in their subject matter: narrative epics nearly unanimously concerned with the trials and tribulations of being young, drunk, and sexually active. But five albums in, the band is growing up, subtly but surely. Craig Finn’s bristling speak-singing ramble has mellowed into a croon. The E Street sound-a-like guitar anthems have simmered into a more diverse batch of pop rock, pop punk, and just pop. And those scenes of teenage confusion? Still there, but now viewed in retrospect, with Finn’s sing-a-long life lessons sounding less like a personal credo and more like advice for the next generation.
Opener “The Sweet Part of the City” is a comfy ode to late urban nights, as well worn and folksy as a campfire song. Note the past tense – “Back when,” “We used to” (cf. the openers on Stay Positive, Boys and Girls in America, and Separation Sunday: all present tense). Craig Finn is waxing philosophical as per usual, but there’s a new and compelling patience to his musings. Things seem less urgent, and it’s nice to just take a breath and think. “Soft In The Center” rocks like a Hold Steady classic but is as much a warning as an anthem. Finn warns, “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.” Finn has always sounded something like a big brother, but here he stumbles into father figure territory, and it’s a role that fits him astonishingly well.
The next three songs reclaim the funk and the strangeness of The Hold Steady’s early work, though much of the flair and sense of fun seem to have dissipated. “The Weekenders” seesaws between dreamy and soaring as Finn addresses clairvoyance, a subject often encountered in his lyrical universe. “The Smidge” and “Rock Problems” immerse us in the rock ‘n roll scene lyrically as well as musically, but while both are decent songs, neither begs to be heard more than a few times; there’s a feeling of staleness to them, a been-there-done-that complacence that runs against everything The Hold Steady are, at their best.
The album’s centerpiece is “We Can Get Together,” a ballad about one thing all Hold Steady fans can understand: the absolute joy of sitting with someone you love, listening to records. To the uninitiated the verses will sound like a string of music trivia, but for true music geeks (probably you, if you are reading this) they echo the heart-gnawing excitement of sharing these bits of fandom, passing secrets about the things that are most important to you. The angelic backing vocals in the chorus border on cheesy, but they don’t overpower Finn’s simple, poignant poetry: “Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Sit down on your floor/And listen to your records.” The message here transcends a love of music: maybe Heaven doesn’t need to be some goal, a distant, ultimate reward; maybe Heaven is living blissful moments.
The album’s conclusion alternates between classic Hold Steady and forays into uncharted territory. First single “Hurricane J” falls into the former category. It’s an anthem for a character, and one of the band’s best, brought to new heights by a bridge that features blaring, emotive guitar and Finn singing at his most heartfelt. “Our Whole Lives” is classic Hold Steady, too, but the muted production makes it feel stifled and canned – only a good chorus saves it. “Barely Breathing” is the album’s most successful experiment, a toe-tapping romp with a clarinet solo most notable for how natural it feels. Closer “A Slight Discomfort,” on the other hand, meanders aimlessly for seven minutes, a bland mess that reaches for grandness but fails to grasp it. Coming from a band that has delivered such poignant closers as “Slapped Actress” and “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” it’s a disappointment.
Undoubtedly, Heaven Is Whenever shows growth. Compared to The Hold Steady’s previous triumphs, it may seem like a step in the wrong direction, but it isn’t. When the album succeeds, it does so brilliantly, and there are enough successes to outweigh the missteps. For a band often written off as a one-trick pony, The Hold Steady have proved their staying power. Whether or not it’s what the old fans want to hear, they have more to say and many more ways to say it.