PopMatters, July 2008
If there’s a nagging conviction behind Stay Positive, it’s a constant refusal to be pinned down on E Street, revealing a toxic indulgence to revel in the spit and swagger of the punk side of town.
And you thought the Hold Steady were just living on E Street? Littered with early Springsteen analogies ever since they broke through with the bar room tales of Boys and Girls in America, Craig Finn has constantly referred to the debt his band owes to the likes of the Ramones, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, only for critics to remain defiant of their origins in favour of references to the New Jersey Godfather. If there’s a nagging conviction behind Stay Positive, the Hold Steady’s fourth album, it’s a constant refusal to be pinned down on E Street, revealing a toxic indulgence to revel in the spit and swagger of the punk side of town.
While Stay Positive proves that Finn and co. still love to get with the E Street shuffle, the first crashing notes of “Constructive Summer”, the record’s charged opener, are a “White Riot”-style riff that Mick Jones would be proud of. The tingling piano and made-for-arena drums that follows may be pure Springsteen, but only after he’s been dragged through a dozen chaotic bars by Finn, all the time regaling the Boss with the genius of Bob Mould. Seventeen seconds into “Constructive Summer” and Finn has already dropped an Iggy Pop reference:
Me and my friends are like the drums on Lust for Life
We pound it out on floor toms
Our psalms are sing-along songs
And while the song may break down into classic early Springsteen territory, all Born to Run piano and Finn’s recounting of disappointing encounters with school and church (“I heard your gospel / It moved me to tears / But I couldn’t find the hate / And I couldn’t find the fear … I tried to believe all the things that you said / But my friends that aren’t dying are already dead”), it’s the lethal bark in Finn’s voice as he croaks out “Raise a toast to St Joe Strummer / I think he might have been our only decent teacher” that is the moment the Hold Steady step back and reclaim their punk mantle.
Still, Stay Positive is a curious record. It’s both a progression on Boys and Girls in America — harpsichords, mandolins, even theremins are plucked out for appearances — and an excuse to explore unfinished business. “Sequested in Memphis”, “Navy Sheets” and the title track could have been lost down the back of the studio sofa after the last album. Its appeal (and how fast it will take to get under your skin) all depends on how willing you are to swallow any expectations you have and just approach it as great, solid rock album.
Finn points out much the same in a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, dismissing any particular concerns with subverting the expectations of long-time fans. “I think it’s more of a challenge for us to make a more consistent, less rambling rock record. Boys and Girls was a step towards that, and Stay Positive is more fully realised,” he says, adding, “as for the fans, I don’t think too much about that. We got our fans by pleasing ourselves.”
The endearing attraction about the Hold Steady—and a large reason behind their solid fan base—is that this selfish attitude to songwriting is not forged out of arrogance. It’s just a way for Finn to say ‘if I wasn’t in his group I’d be in the pit watching them’. This, and a purposeful defiance to pander to the accepted rock and roll game—no asymmetrical haircuts to dress up elaborately-designed style-mag covers; no piercing cheekbones to hang the affections of feigning rock chicks (and critics)—is both refreshing and unprecedented in an age when most new artists seem to come shrink-wrapped in ‘Barbie boxes’ and an American Idol tie-in.
The Hold Steady make no qualms about their age (Finn is 36) and if Stay Positive is strung together by a common theme it’s the act of growing old gracefully. “Constructive Summer” closes with Finn warning “Getting older makes it harder to remember / We are our only saviours / We’re gonna build something this summer.” But it’s the title track, a thumping sing-a-long number as good as any they’ve written, that addresses the issue head-on. Finn name-drops early straight-edge band 7 Seconds as a reason behind the kids giving him credit “for being down with it”, before predicting a time when “These kids at the shows will have kids of their own / And these sing-a-long songs will be our scriptures.”
And yet while Stay Positive might find Finn in existential contemplation of his past, present and future, thankfully it doesn’t keep him away from his observational wisdom in recounting tales of hedonism, naivety, drugs and alcohol in small town America. “Joke About America” may not be their finest five minutes, although it’s an absorbing song based around a sweet Hammond groove, a telling, slow beat and a dark narrative of splintering music scenes and friendship. But Finn’s lyrics are exceptional:
Back then it was beautiful
The boys were sweet and musical
The laser lights looked mystical
Messed up stuff felt magical
Girls didn’t seem so difficult
Boys didn’t seem so typical
It was warm and white and wonderful
We were all invincible
Elsewhere, while you’re contemplating Hold Steady’s consistent attention to thunderous, playful rock, Stay Positive has a knack to take you on a few sharp left turns. Straight after the rousing “Sequested in Memphis”, “One for the Cutters” kicks-in with a majestic harpsichord line that, even though it undercuts a great Craig Finn narrative, is still enough to make you check the CD cover for proof it’s still the Hold Steady and not Tori Amos. “Lord, I’m Discouraged”, leaves E Street and the punk quarter far behind and drifts off on a desolate tale of helplessness as a lover fades into addiction. Somewhere between Buffalo Tom and R.E.M. at their most melancholy, it features a painful piano line as Finn comes to terms with the “excuses and half truths and fortified wine”.
Stay Positive closes with the joyous “Slapped Actress”, a reference to Opening Night Director John Cassavetes (“We are the actors / The cameras are rollin’ / I’ll be Ben Gazzara / You’ll be Gena Rowlands”), but also seemingly pointing to the constant burn of touring:
Sometimes, actresses get slapped.
Some nights, makin’ it look real might end up with someone hurt.
Some nights, it’s just entertainment, and, some other nights, it’s real.
They come in for the beating, to see the stadium seating.
They’re holding their hands out for the body and blood, now.
We’re the directors, our hands will hold steady.
I’ll be John Cassavettes, let me know when you’re ready.
Grinding along on an infectious, spiralling crescendo, the piano holds the melody together before being overtaken by a J Mascis-style cacophony of guitars and a rising chorus, Finn closing the song and reaffirming the Hold Steady conviction at the same time, “Man, we make our own movies / Man, we make our own movies”.