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May 10, 2005

The Hold Steady gets serious on gloomy Sunday

Anybody who has listened to the first album by the Hold Steady, Almost Killed Me, might be slightly disappointed by their latest effort Separation Sunday. This is presuming, of course, that what these people found so great about the former is the complete disavowal of anything serious. Almost Killed Me felt a bit like a lost Saturday night, bits and pieces of which come to you when you're trying to wake up in the morning two months later and wondering what happened to all of the people you met. To say that Separation Sunday replaces that sense of reckless abandon with dark pretension, as some have begun to say, is perhaps going too far. Nevertheless, reckless abandon has given way to some sort of literary intent here, and although the albums remain musically similar, something has been lost. There's effort here, where before there seemed to be none.

Craig Finn, the man with the microphone and the pen, still writes lyrics about parties, drinking, drugs, and all of the interesting characters that he meets between Boulder and Ybor City. He still writes lines, like "She said, ‘You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young/You're passionate, you think that you're sexy, and all the punks think that you're dumb.'" He still writes his songs less as verse-chorus affairs and more as rambling, stream-of-consciousness yarns about hoodrats, pimps, and drug dealers, eliciting easy (and accurate) comparisons to Dylan and Springsteen. He still delivers these lyrics less by singing them and more by hurling them out of his mouth along with saliva and caustic irony.

However, the center around which these forms revolve has shifted. Where Almost Killed Me recounts stories of the present with little regard for any emotional content besides nostalgia—if it's possible to feel nostalgia for the present—Separation Sunday (as its name implies) deals more heavily with themes of loss, couched in religious imagery. Take, for example, this line from "Stevie Nix": "She got screwed up by her visions, it was scary when she saw 'em/She didn't tell a single person about the camps on the banks of the Mississippi River/Lord, to be 17 forever/She got strung out on the scene and she got scared when it got druggy/The way the whispers bit like fangs in the last hour of the party/Lord, to be 33 forever." Built right into Finn's words here are vision quests, drugs, and the sense of growing old with nothing to show for your years but haze.

There is another iteration of how different these two albums really are, if it isn't clear enough already. Instead of making references to Rocco Siffredi, Robbie Robertson, Billy Joel, and Right Said Fred, Finn here refers to Nabokov, Yeats, and Blake, not to mention numerous references to folk masses, born-again Christians, and the Book of Revelations. Gone are the present-tense exhilarations of parties on Almost Killed Me where girls introduce themselves as "Cory/I'm really into hardcore." On Separation Sunday, almost all of Finn's verbs are past tense. He takes the listener on what feels a bit like a journey through his personal past. Consequently, what was already a self-reflexive personality has become even more personal; before, it was Finn telling you about parties. Now he tells you about parties when he was a teenager.

Of course, one could point out the irony of me sitting here complaining about losing the past Hold Steady to the present—if I want to talk about the past, why can't Finn? That's true, to a point. But what bothers me about Separation Sunday is not that it looks to the past so much as that Finn has lost what I loved so much about his first effort—the sense of being a really fun drunk with lots of great stories. Now he is the drunk who is trying really hard to be sincere.

But perhaps I'm being too hard on the guy. After all, this is still the Hold Steady we're talking about. Still here is the full-on production, guitar solos, complete with shimmering Bruce-like piano lines and killer drumming. The opening riff of "Stevie Nix" might as well be Angus Young. Finn can still make you giddy with a line like "He came into the E.R. drinkin' gin from a jam jar/And the nurse is makin' jokes about the E.R. bein' like an afterbar," also in that song. And indulgent as they can be, Finn's lyrics at their worst are still better than most, as long as his endless string of references doesn't get you down. (It also helps if you've lived in the Twin Cities, since most of his geographic lines point north to that fair conurbation).

Separation Sunday is a good album. It just isn't quite as strong, in the end, as their first effort. It's never that fun to listen to dark or nostalgic stories unless you're in the mood for them, but you can always listen to something fun. Perhaps part of the problem is that Finn hasn't altered his musical approach to reflect his new lyrical emphasis. Despite the really good songs here, especially "Stevie Nix" and "How a Resurrection Really Feels," I wonder if Finn struggles to write music as varied and surprising as his lyrics. I guess we'll need a third Hold Steady album to know for sure (maybe one where he writes about the parties of the future?), and although this isn't its best effort, I still say that the Hold Steady is one of the best bands around.