By Alex Distefano
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The Hold Steady used to end each concert with a slogan. After an hour or two of tightly rehearsed Bruce Springsteen-esque rock bolstering Craig Finn’s babbled and crooned lyrics, you could expect Finn, grinning like a toddler, his arms outstretched like a televangelist, to exclaim, “There’s so much joy in what we do up here!”
Now? “What the band is all about is honesty and sincerity, and I do really feel blessed to be able to do this for a living,” Finn says. But as for the whole “joy” spiel, he says, “It was becoming a kind of cliché. . . . It comes off insincere if you’re saying the same thing every night.”
This is actually a recurring problem for the Hold Steady. The Minneapolis-via-Brooklyn quartet (recently reduced from a quintet) have only existed for six years, but in that time, they’ve birthed an entire mythology out of Finn’s sung-spoke stories about teenagers, parties, drug deals, Ybor City, Catholic churches, the Mississippi River and kids sleeping in matinees. They’ve been called a “bar band” and compared to Springsteen (ahem) nearly as many times as guitarist Tad Kubler has busted out a double-neck Gibson onstage. But at a certain point, doesn’t all new mythology calcify into cliché?
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It’s a question Finn grappled with while making the band’s latest full-length, Heaven Is Whenever, released by Vagrant Records in May. “I was somewhat hyper-aware that we were making our fifth record when we started out,” he says. “It was like, ‘Wow, we’ve been around for a while. What’s the tone of this thing?’”
Finn’s perspective evolved for Heaven Is Whenever, but you wouldn’t notice on the first listen. Opener “The Sweet Part of the City,” for example, comes off as a litany of Hold Steady canards: kids meeting at bars, kids sleeping in theaters, kids name-dropping neighborhoods. But get closer, and it becomes clear the song is a remembrance from middle age of a time when it was okay to be an underachiever as long as you lived in a hipster haven such as, say, Silver Lake or, in Finn’s case, Uptown Minneapolis, where he resided as a 20-something.
“It didn’t matter that my job sucked,” he recalls. “It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a girlfriend. I was just so impressed with myself for having an apartment in that area and being able to go out to bars and having the bartenders recognize me.”
He, of course, grew up. “You get to 27, 28, and you’re like, ‘God, I wish I had a better job,’” he says. “But for that one, sweet time, you’re totally impressed by just your address.”
“The Sweet Part of the City” climaxes with Finn, now 39, singing about starting a band out of boredom—which is exactly how the Hold Steady began. By the time he reached his 30s, Finn’s somewhat-successful Minneapolis literary-punk group Lifter Puller had broken up and he had moved to New York City, where he worked in an office. Ennui set in. He assembled a clutch of Midwestern rockers to play with him, and critical acclaim, world tours and the repetition—and eventual retiring—of that onstage bit about “joy” ensued.
The quest for joy still sits at the center of the band’s work. But whereas Finn’s characters once engaged in an endless, tragic struggle to re-create last weekend’s high—overdoses, cops and dehydration be damned—they now occasionally wring satisfaction from everyday pleasures such as sitting with friends and listening to records. Similarly, where the songs on 2006’s Boys and Girls In America and 2008’s Stay Positive were defined by massive “whoa-oh-oh” sing-along moments, Heaven Is Whenever more often revels in fine instrumental details.
“This record is kind of coming from a place of contentment or imparting some wisdom,” Finn says. “The subtext is everything’s going to be all right. It may not seem like it always, but it will.”
The shift has led to some grumbling from fans and critics about the Hold Steady softening on their way to fogeydom. Finn might not totally disagree, but he boasts that their live show is as raucous as ever. “It’s kind of like, there’s so much joy, do we really go and do more whoa-whoa-whoas here, or does it feel like we’ve done that?” Finn says. “The album’s slightly different, but I think when people are seeing the songs inserted into the set, next to all the other songs, with a bunch of bodies in the room and beer flying around, it sort of makes sense.”