It's been four years since the Hold Steady last put out a full-length album, but the band has been regularly releasing new songs in pairs every few months since last November. They're not getting a lot of attention, but each of the six new songs has been pretty strong.
As Consequence of Sound noted in a complain-y review about the Hold Steady's 2014 LP "Teeth Dreams," singer and lyricist Craig Finn has broadened the scope of his storytelling beyond Hallelujah, Charlemagne and Gideon, the characters who anchored the band's earlier albums. The subtext of those albums — "Almost Killed Me," "Separation Sunday" and "Boys and Girls and America" in particular — was that youth is fleeting and nostalgia can be skewed, but even so, some things never change.
Those are resonant ideas for what has become a devoted fanbase — "Lord, to be 33 forever," as Finn sings on "Stevie Nix," from "Separation Sunday"— and even if the narrative sometimes got a little dark or out of hand, "There was some universal ability to relate to Finn’s past subject matter," as CoS put it. The characters in the Hold Steady's more recent songs are, for most of us, outside the realm of personal experience. They exist on the fringes, mired in sketchy deals with shady associates: "Set up for a slaughter and shot in the shoulder/ Got pretty screwed by the chef and the chauffeur," Finn sings on "The Stove & the Toaster," the latest single, about a planned drug heist that ends in a double-cross.
Relatable? No. I have never been wounded by gunfire while trying to rob a drug lord. On the other hand, I've never done any of the shit that James Bond has done, either—or, for that matter, cooked meth in a camper in the desert, like Walter White—but I sure enjoyed "Skyfall" and "Breaking Bad." The point is, the Hold Steady's more recent songs tell a hell of a story, or stories — it's not yet clear (at least, to me) how connected these six songs are in that respect. But I want to know more about what Finn is singing about on "Entitlement Crew," and I'm fascinated by the dynamic between the primary characters (and by Tad Kubler's blazing guitar riff) on "Eureka."
Finn's songs on his most recent solo albums, especially last year's "We All Want the Same Things" (which I reviewed for Paste) have taken on an almost literary bent, like short stories set to music. That sensibility has clearly carried over to the lyrics he's writing for the Hold Steady, which haven't lost their bite or vivid imagery: "The dress she was wearing made a nice case for natural selection," he sings on "Star 18," the b-side to "The Stove & the Toaster." Combined with the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay — who adds an enormous amount to the sound of the band, which became apparent on the albums he wasn't part of in 2010 and 2014 — Finn's hardboiled lyrics and Kubler's liveliest guitar parts in years make the Hold Steady sound like a band that still has plenty to say, even if it's not necessarily the class-notes updates on the old characters that some fans were hoping to hear.