By Bill Sencio
Top ten things you should know about the new Hold Steady album “Heaven is Whenever”:
1. The Hold Steady and their music is very similar to the film works of Quentin Tarantino, both artists wear their influences proudly and unabashedly on their sleeves, both are impossibly creative and inherently cool, and both can take their obviously-beloved influences and combine them into something altogether new and original and amazing.
2. Following point 1, “Heaven is Whenever” is to The Hold Steady what “Death Proof” was to Tarantino, a respectably ambitious project that goes places the artist never went before, but doesn’t quite gel as well as previous works.
3. Franz Nicolay is gone. He left the band prior to the new album being recorded, and his presence is non existent on this album. While this is a sad thing in general, and he will surely be missed, the loss does not hurt the band overall, as the sound of the now-foursome remains as solid as ever.
4. The other element gone from “Heaven is Whenever” is most of the cast of characters that had been the protagonists of Craig Finn’s stories on the previous four albums. Missing altogether on the new album are Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne, three of Finn’s main omnipresent burnout/ party kid/ born-agains. In their place Finn inserts himself as more protagonist than narrator on many of the new songs, and it is kind of brilliant, in the meta-storytelling way Finn has– The previous album “Stay Positive” was based on a theme of growing up, moving on and getting older. It makes sense that the characters we have grow to know moved on, and Finn himself now gets the chance to be more introspective, the observer becoming increasingly similar to his former subjects.
5. Another (far less intriguing) first for The Hold Steady is the lack of a strong opening and closing track. In fact, I can’t say I was even impressed with “Heaven is Whenever” on my first few listens, mostly because of the entirely underwhelming and out-of-place opening and closing tunes. The plodding, twangy “Sweet Part of the City” opens the album, and it is easily the most skip-worthy song ever written by this band. The last track, “A Slight Discomfort,” doesn’t fare much better– while not terrible, it just doesn’t feel strong enough to close out an album by a band this great.
6. Before this review starts sounding too negative (which it is not meant to), the eight tracks IN BETWEEN the open and close of the record are great. There’s a very dramatic air to many of these songs, most notably “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J” (the former song catches up with the clairvoyant girl from “Chips Ahoy” from two albums ago, while the latter introduces a new character to Finn’s narrative that I’m sure we’ll hear him sing about again sooner than later).
7. While still eschewing the bombastic, over-the-top riffs that launched The Hold Steady into stardom, there is plenty of great guitar rock to love here. Going back to my Tarantino analogy, “Death Proof” wasn’t Tarantino paying homage to grindhouse films, it was him DOING an authentic grindhouse film. Likewise, while The Hold Steady has long proudly paid tribute with nods to their Springsteen/ E Street roots in the past, new songs like “Soft in the Center” simply ARE E Street songs, or should have been. Think about what I’m saying then listen to track two on “Heaven” again… I promise your brain will change Finn’s voice into Bruce’s as you listen.
8. “Rock Problems” sounds like it belongs on Separation Sunday, and is a great song in the Hold Steady tradition of “bar band on steroids” classics. “Barely Breathing” follows up on “Stay Positive”s title track, chronicling Finn’s probably true encounter with Youth of Today frontman Ray Cappo, both pre- and post-Hare Krishna conversion, and it is completely hilarious if you know anything about the early hardcore/ straightedge scene.
9. This album is probably the second in the band’s discography to have a good (or at least not ridiculously dumb) album cover.
10. “Heaven is Whenever” can really be taken two ways. As the next album in a series by one of the best bands in the scene today, it is complicated and experimental, and a little off-putting, and is sure to fall short of a lot of expectations. Had this record dropped by an unknown band, many of its same detractors would likely be calling it album of the year (such is always the case, when artists have to be measured up to the quality of their previous work, as well as everything else out there)… No matter how you choose to look at it, trust me when I say it’s worth a listen (or five).