The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever

Heaven Is Whenever (2010)

B+

1. The Sweet Part Of The City 2. Soft In The Center 3. The Weekenders 4. The Smidge 5. Rock Problems 6. We Can Get Together 7. Hurricane J 8. Barely Breathing 9. Our Whole Lives 10. A Slight Discomfort

 

Franz is gone, and apparently took a whole bunch of the Hold Steady’s rock muscle with him. Some say his departure was mostly a result of power politics in the band, and more specifically Franz perhaps losing sight of the fact that the Hold Steady is about Craig and Tad’s vision and not a vehicle for him to ensure that 2013 will be the year the 1920s circus performer look finally comes back in style (what’s taken it so long, anyway?). His increasingly liberal keyboard contributions and tendency to jump around on stage almost as much as Craig on the last couple of albums/tours he was with the band notwithstanding, it turns out Franz wasn’t as involved in the songwriting as I thought he was and Tad has written a vast majority of the music. So why, then, does the Hold Steady sound so different without Mr. Mustache?

Honestly I didn’t like this album at all when it came out a couple years back. Thought it sounded like the Hold Steady Lite (though not quite Hold Steady 64… Miller 64 is to actual beer what Date Movie is to comedy). Less guitar crunch, slicked over production, and if Craig was really singing actual melodies more than before, his lyrics were far less interesting than ever. On the rocker “Soft In The Center,” all he can muster are a few half-assed big brotherly platitudes, stooping so low as to actually say “I’m gonna give you some advice” before delivering the deflatingly un-profound refrain, “You can’t get every girl/You’ll get the ones you love the best.” Frankly, after hearing Bob Dylan sing that stupid song about naming all the animals on Slow Train Coming, even the most pointless lines that come out of the mouths of otherwise great lyricists don’t sound particularly shocking to me. But a lot—though certainly not all—of Heaven Is Whenever sounds like Craig is just kind of phoning it in. He’s gone back over the same themes, characters, and often reused lines almost obsessively throughout the Hold Steady catalogue (which he does again here – “The Weekenders” is a sequel to “Chips Ahoy”) but this is the first time he didn’t sound like he barely had anything new to add to the canon. This was bound to happen eventually. I mean, how long can a forty-year old man be expected to write about college parties without tiring the subject out? And more importantly, can he write about anything else? I don’t think he needs to if he can find a way to keep his shtick interesting, but I do wonder.

Still, there are a few great lines spread throughout the album.

“But it’s a long haul to the corner store from the center of the universe/When you can’t get your car off the curb”

“She said, ‘the theme of this party’s the industrial age/And you came in dressed like a train wreck”

“Some writer is by the fridge, he said he didn’t make the gig/He wants to know if I was drunk/He said the kids that he knows from the net said the sound kind of sucked”

“But twenty-two and banging round in restaurants isn’t that much prettier than banging round in bars”

“You’re a beautiful girl and you’re a pretty good waitress/But Jesse I don’t think I’m the guy”

“After the show I spoke with the singer/And he tried to hand me a pamphlet about Hare Krishna/I said, ‘you gotta be kidding/Who the hell is the blue guy?’”

“And you say you’re a princess/But I remain unconvinced/I’ve seen the guys that you’ve been with/They don’t seem much like princes”

And you know, the fact that there aren’t more classic couplets may not be entirely due to a lack of effort on Craig’s part, but rather to the fact that his usual verbosity was intentionally reined in in service of melody. This is by far the poppiest Hold Steady album to date, and the focus on guitar heroics is greatly decreased – there’s nary a solo to be found on the second half of the record. It’s obvious there’s something different about what the guys are trying to do when, instead of starting off the album with a riff monster like “Stuck Between Stations” or “Constructive Summer” like they usually, the opener is the shimmering “The Sweet Part Of The City,” built of a bed of swampy guitars playing a lullaby-like descending slide line. It ain’t too gritty, but it’s awful pretty. Its bookend is the closing dirge “A Slight Discomfort,” which, might, improbably, be my favorite Hold Steady song. Craig always says at shows, “there’s so much joy in what we do up here!” And while that’s something that sets them apart from the rest of today’s dour, introverted indie rock scene, life—and especially the life of drug-taking, hook-up happy college kids—ain’t always joyful. That’s why I like that there’s something downright ugly about this song, with its caustic minor chords awash in an abundance of tinny reverb. So when Craig sings, “We’re not afraid/We have our faith/Our struggle still feels wonderful most days,” the contrast makes it feel more like real life than anything he’s ever done.

It’s not like they’ve abandoned writing straight ahead rock songs, though. Yeah, there’s a Dixieland jazz clarinet solo on “Barely Breathing,” and the ballad “We Can Get Together” is horrifyingly awful – what was a pretty nice-sounding tune with “Certain Songs”-like lyrics when they were playing it live before the album came out is here buried under mountains of the corniest Yamaha keyboard effects imaginable. But there’s still plenty of guitar; it’s just not, for the most part, as grimy or loud as it was before. Don’t despair, though! The chorus of “The Weekenders” is pretty heavy and rocking, and “Rock Problems,” like “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” before it, is built of a riff that could have easily been stolen from some lost 70s AOR anthem. Still, like I said, it’s a lot more about melody this time around, which is why the bitchingly catchy single “Hurricane J” is such a home run. They aimed straight for the pleasure center with that one, and scored a direct hit.

Still, despite how much Heaven Is Inside Your Mom has grown on me, I still feel some trepidation about where THS might go from here. If they get any more slick and poppy, they’ll have just gone soft. This is a nice change up, and has a few excellent moments, but let’s hope they can regain some of their muscle next time.



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