The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday

Separation Sunday (2005)


1. Hornets! Hornets! 2. Cattle And The Creeping Things 3. Your Little Hoodrat Friend 4. Banging Camp 5. Charlemagne In Sweatpants 6. Stevie Nix 7. Multitude Of Casualties 8. Don’t Let Me Explode 9. Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night 10. Crucifixion Cruise 11. How A Resurrection Really Feels


So the title of this record is a football term. It refers to when some teams “separate” themselves from the pack record-wise and prove themselves to be elite. (This would be the exact opposite of what the New York Jets did today, despite managing to miraculously pull out a fluke win in overtime. God, that was probably the worst football game I’ve ever seen in my life. Just four hours of absolutely pathetic offense by both teams. Ugh. Mark Sanchez looks like a goddamned 12-year old nerd frightened of bullies coming to steal his lunch money when he has to throw under pressure. But I digress). Disappointingly, Separation Sunday is not the long-awaited great American football rock opera (which I think somebody should totally do. It could be kind of awesome. Unless, like, Rush, did it. Then it would probably be pretty lame). But it is a concept album, and the title, as you may have guessed, is a Christian double entendre. Yup, that line in “Killer Parties” about “departing from our bodies” wasn’t just a throwaway line… Craig is constantly exploring his spirituality in his lyrics, and Separation Sunday is a blatantly and self-identifying Catholic album. And yet, it’s about as far from a Santorumite screed as can possibly be imagined. Craig has said this about his religious habits: 

I don’t know that the Pope would have anything to do with my version of Catholicism. I’m just the guy who shows up occasionally at church and sits in the back. I don’t even know if I’m technically a Catholic. There’s something I get out of it that people probably get from doing yoga or whatever.

Craig’s Catholicism is one in which the religious themes of resurrection, redemption, and salvation mingle seamlessly with the rock ‘n roll themes of sex, drugs, and partying. And since the world that Separation Sunday takes place in is closer to Sodom and Gomorrah than the Kingdom of Heaven, this is about as fun—and rocking—as Christianity gets.

As with most concept albums, the story is not explicitly spelled out, and following it closely is not as important as grasping the themes the album explores. Basically, there’s a chick named Hallelujah (subtle, no?), nicknamed Holly, who starts out as an innocent Christian girl but then starts to get deep into the drug and party scenes in suburban Minneapolis. She starts working as a prostitute for a pimp named Charlemagne, who, in her heavily medicated and still religiously-saturated state, she believes to be her savior. Soon, she’s found dead in a garbage dump. I don’t know what the plot of tracks 7-9 is supposed to be, but sometime later, Holly, looking “strung out and experienced” is resurrected like the Hoodrat Jesus that she is, and is welcomed back home. Holly, Charlemagne, and other characters, phrases, and events from this album, appear frequently throughout the Hold Steady catalog. After all, when you talk about your crazy partying years, don’t you tell the same stories over and over again? That time you woke up in the woods behind your friend’s house with no pants on… that time you were hooking up with the girl you’d had a crush on since 3rd grade and she puked all over you… that time you and Holly and Charlemagne did speed… with his recurring tales, Craig is created a collective memory—fictional but highly relatable—within the mind of all Hold Steady fans. We can debate later whether or not he needs to move on to new topics after several more years and albums of the same stuff. But at this stage, it was borderline brilliant. Lyrically, this is one of my favorite albums of all time, so to avoid letting my quotations section get out of hand, I’ll just extract my favorite line from each song, in track order:

“And I have to really try so hard not to fall in love/I have to concentrate when we kiss.”

“Silly rabbit, tripping is for teenagers, murder is for murderers and hard drugs are for bartenders/I think might have mentioned that before.”

“Tiny little text etched into her neck/It said, ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins’/She’s got blue black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back/Says, “Damn right, He’ll rise again’/Yeah, damn right she’ll rise again.”

“There’s strings attached to every single lover/But they still can’t even tether us together.”

“Tramps like us and we like tramps/Charlemagne’s got something in his sweatpants.”

“She said, ‘You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young/You’ve got passion, you think that you’re sexy, and all the punks think that you’re dumb.’”

“We spent a few months just wandering the Sonoma/High as hell and shivering and smashed/We were hoping for a vision quest/We opened up three buttons/But all we saw was desert trash.”

“And we didn’t go to Dallas/Because Jackie Onassis said that it ain’t safe for Catholics yet/Think about what they pulled on Kennedy and then think about his security/Then think about what they might try to pull on you and me.”

“Yeah, and sweet St. Paul, he must be the hardest luck saint of them all/We met him at some suburban St. Paul mall/But when St. Theresa came to Holly, I wasn’t even at that party/I’d already moved out to New York City.”

“She climbed the cross and found she liked the view.”

“She was limping left on broken heels/When she said, ‘Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

Geez, that might still have been a little much, huh? In that case, I’ll move on to the music, which is not very far removed from your basic bar band rock. And there should be no shame in that. No, the riffs aren’t mindblowingly original creations – throw in a dash of Springsteen, a touch of Zeppelin, and some of whatever arena rock band you have fond memories of smoking dope to in 1975 (Thin Lizzy? Foghat?), and you’ve got most of this album. But, far from being bald rip offs, they are all new riffs (except maybe the chorus riff of the horn-adorned rocker “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”… I swear to god I’ve heard that riff on classic rock radio before. Can someone help me out here? Seriously, is this like a Bachman-Turner Overdrive song or something?), they’re all rock solid, and they’re all performed idiosyncratically and ass-kickingly by Mr. Tad Kubler. The powerhouse riffing on the keyed-up first half of “Stevie Nix” is an obvious highlight for the guitarist, but man, I could eat up that Keith Richardsian bluesy note bending he slathers all over “Charlemagne In Sweatpants” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Tad’s playing is improved by the fact that he now has a foil that he didn’t have on Almost Killed Me: Franz Nicolay’s keyboards. They would turn the “Stuck Between Stations” verseàbig guitar chorusàkeyboard breakdownàback again pattern into a reliable formula on their next album, but it makes its first appearances here. They wouldn’t have been able to pull off the heavy, cascading bridge of the otherwise near-jaunty “Hornets! Hornets!” near as effectively without Franz, and certainly not the emotional, piano-based second half of “Stevie Nix” – the perfect backdrop to Craig passionately slurring the refrain, “Lord, to be 17 forever” (occasionally altered to “Lord, to be 33 forever,” since there weren’t enough Jesus allusions on the album already). There’s an organ breakdown on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” too, but even without it, the song would rule more than a hot fudge sundae and a blowjob from Jessica Alba combined. If you have any doubts about Craig Finn’s voice inhibiting the Hold Steady’s ability to craft a truly infectious chorus, then prepare to have them obliterated… this is easily one of the catchiest and most fun rock singles to come out in the 2000s.

The band does sort of run out of gas a bit on the second half with a couple of second-tier tunes (“Multitude Of Casualties,” a return to the no-riff rock that characterized the less memorable parts of Almost Killed Me; the laid back “Don’t Let Me Explode,” which musically could maybe pass for a Bob Seger cover). Fortunately, there’s a grand finale that makes up for any lull: “How A Resurrection Really Feels,” a triumphant pseudo-gospel rocker that brings the house down in resounding fashion. It’s a perfect conclusion to an album that, well… it ain’t always pretty, but neither is real life. And until Jesus does return, we gotta deal with it. Having Separation Sunday in your collection just might make trying to a little more bearable.

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