The Hold Steady have always felt like outliers in one way or another. Their breakout albums, Boys and Girls in America (2006) and Stay Positive (2008), stood out amid a cooler-than-cool scene of popular indie rock bands like Arctic Monkeys and TV On The Radio. They sounded like The Replacements, and frontman Craig Finn sang like Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, which is to say he talked a lot and told stories. His characters were faded, beaten down, crossed somewhere between Catholicism and hardcore, which is not what his band sounded like.
“The kids at the shows,” Finn warned back then, “they’ll have kids of their own. And the singalong songs will be our scriptures.” The Hold Steady didn’t just create characters, they had mythologies. Anything that earnest will be bound to get eyerolls at one point or another, but the band created a world out of the punk scene of an imagined 1980s. They told stories of massive highs and crushing lows, creating visions of the two wrapped up in each other.
On their latest, The Price of Progress, the kids have grown up. They’re still looking for their saviors. They’re lost, in more ways than one. “Now every conversation I have is about money / And I leave home in the morning but then I just keep driving,” Finn sings on “Carlos Is Crying.”
Carlos is crying because of some guy who’s no good for his sister—“the dude claimed he was a carpenter but no one ever saw him pound a nail,” another classic Finn description. All Finn can offer him is the basic decency we can offer anyone: “I love you / I feel you / I know that you’re hurting.” And a piece of advice: “turn off the burner / the butter is burning.”
When you’re not sure if the lyrics are metaphorical or not, you’re in proper Hold Steady territory. An album standout, “Understudies,” feels like a story that’s actually about Finn. He backs this up in an interview with Tidal, saying that the lead guy who likes to hit the town after a night performing is one he can “very much relate to.” There’s often some violence in a Hold Steady song, either on the edges or right in front of you.
After taking in a mugshot for a manhunt, Finn sings about an actor who has become so in love with his work that he can’t sleep. “The adrenaline it kicks in / When the stagehand hits the curtain / It’s exciting when you’re working / You get to be a different person.” Anyone who has seen The Hold Steady knows what Finn gets like when everything’s hitting right: He’s larger than life, a storyteller at his happiest when he’s creating stories with an audience eager to believe in punk-shaped miracles.
In the Tidal interview, Finn describes the band as having gone through three stages: “1.0 is the original lineup; 2.0 is when [keyboardist] Franz [Nicolay] left and [guitarist] Steve [Selvidge] joined; and 3.0 is when Franz came back and Steve also stayed.” The band’s moment in the indie zeitgeist was at its peak in the original framework, but they were always building something of their own. Their songs often start with something skeletal and end with something colossal, both in lyrics and in sound.
This is their best since their heyday, with characters that will stay with you long after you hear their songs and a sound that will make them feel larger than life. It’s hard for a storytelling rock band not to sound like Bruce Springsteen, and The Hold Steady certainly will not shy away from their influences, but in all their time doing this, with nine records under their belt, they’ve succeeded in building something new.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.