While I don’t want to give away the entire review of this album in the first sentence, let me just start by saying that this is The Hold Steady’s first record without their essential pianist Franz Nicolay, who struck out on his own earlier this year.
To be fair, most of the band’s attention in the past has focused on frontman and lyricist Craig Finn, who has gained quite a fan following for his weathered rock ‘n’ roll vocals and dizzyingly allusive, poetic lyrics. But The Hold Steady is also a band governed by keyboard riffs, and if Heaven is Whenever is any indication of the limitations imposed by Nicolay’s departure, it is clear that the keys were the glue that held the sound together and provided a foundation for the rest of the band to build upon.
The best songs on this album are the ones where they managed to record some keys into the mix, like “Our Whole Lives,” and the rest simply beg for a little tinkling of the ivories. Without them, the guitar power-chord riffs in the middle of “Rock Problems” and “The Weekenders” sounds more like Journey than the E Street Band.
Aside from its desperate need for some high-range piano, the album’s single, “Hurricane J,” hits all the typical Hold Steady requirements: the same recurring dark characters, the Catholic complex, the anthemic background vocals, and the lines that harken back to previous Hold Steady songs (“You're a beautiful girl and you're a pretty good waitress,” versus “she was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend,” from “Stuck Between Stations.”) “Our Whole Lives,” too, does a decent job of meeting the previous standard, with a serious rock ‘n’ roll chorus that is catchy, upbeat, and heavy on the kick-drum.
“The Weekenders,” too, is lovable if only because it sounds exactly like “You Can Make Him Like You” off Boys and Girls in America, sans the dynamic chorus. This consistency may hurt the Hold Steady in the long run—you can only rhyme “riverside” with “cyanide” so many times—but for now it works as a sort of bridge, a way of meeting high expectations without the very essential instrument they are missing.
But perhaps Nicolay’s departure has allowed—or demanded—a bit more creativity in the band’s instrumentation. “The Sweet Part of the City” is actually quite sweet, with a yawning see-saw dobro guiding most of the melody where the keys would have been. You can run down the checklist again: ominous characters (“she always claimed she was from Tennessee”), a twisted Catholicism wrapped in wordplay (“St. Theresa showed up wearin’ see-through, it was standard issue”). But the shining moment in this song is the last 20 seconds, when Finn spits out his densest consonants over sleigh bells and choral “oohs.” It’s light, its nice, and best of all, it’s different.
Similarly, the best track here is “We Can Get Together,” a lovely ballad which makes use of keyboard and lighter instrumentation to make every one of Finn’s lyrics count. He positively glows in his heartache and wordplay, most of all when his attention is focused on celebrating the role of music itself, as much here as on the classic “Certain Songs.” “Heaven is whenever we can get together / sit down on your floor / and listen to your records,” might sound cheesy coming out of anyone else’s mouth, but Finn’s authenticity and obvious care outweigh any chance of that. I envision young William Miller here, and Finn creates an equally moving scene, jumping around pop culture and pulling down pieces: “Heaven is the hole of the heart and paradise is by the dashboard light. And Utopia’s a band, they sang Love is the Answer and I think they’re probably right.”
-- Caroline Klibanoff
“Melodious Intoxication,” Thursdays 12-2 pm on WGTB