When news of Franz Nicolay's departure from The Hold Steady landed on the internet, the first thing many of us wanted to know was what his absence would mean for The Hold Steady's music. The reasoning for Nicolay's departure was fairly straight-forward--he had other projects he wanted to focus on, and felt that he'd exhausted his potential playing piano and singing back up for Craig Finn and co. While these are all fine and perfectly rational reasons for someone to leave a band, some of the band's fans, myself included, began to wonder if Nicolay's decision might negatively impact The Hold Steady's new material or, worse, if he was leaving because the new material wasn't particularly engaging. In retrospect, these kinds of conversations only exist because of message boards and music fans' need to speculate endlessly over shit they know nothing about. As it turns out, though, this time, the obsessive music fans weren't entirely wrong. In other words, The Hold Steady's latest album, Heaven is Whenever, ahem, isn't particularly engaging.
The biggest problem with Heaven is Whenever seems to be boredom. The album is full of songs that could be considered "rockers" but very few of them rock with the verve or passion of The Hold Steady's finest moments. Songs like "Soft in the Center," "The Smidge" and "Rock Problems" coast by, with barely a hook or memorable lyric between them. For a band that made two albums of nothing but hooks--Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America--and two albums with their fair share of hooks--...Almost Killed Me and Stay Positive--this new album's lack of excitement is not just disappointing but downright shocking.
When The Hold Steady released Stay Positive in 2008, the album clearly didn't live up to its predecessors, but it was still a solid album that demanded repeat listens. Though the record represented a dip in quality, the decline was quiet enough that it felt like nothing more than a slight mis-step or, at worst, a settling into solid, workman-like craftsmanship that wasn't as immediately stirring as what came before, but was still worthy of our time. If Heaven is Whenever is any indication, the last album's dip in quality may have been more foreboding than we ever might have guessed. Here's to hoping that by the next album, The Hold Steady find whatever it is that they lost.
Ah, but finally, there is a bit of hope. While Heaven is Whenever boasts one near-classic Hold Steady style anthem in the infectious "Hurricane J," it finds some fine moments in a more toned down, mellower rock approach. Album opener, "The Sweet Part of the City" is really the biggest cause for hope, here, as it layers acoustic and slide guitar beneath Finn's weary, more-adult-than-ever vocals to produce a warm, rootsy rock sound that could turn out to be a promising new direction for The Hold Steady. When Finn delivers the lyric, "We used to meet underneath the marquis/We used to nod off in the matinees," the song's speaker sounds crushed by nostalgia, until we find out that this isn't a song about missing a better past, but of escaping the its oppression: "But it's a long haul to the corner store from the center of the universe/When you can't get your car off the curb." And maybe that's why the song is so effective--for once, it's not about cast away characters fetishizing their youth, or the youth of others. It's a song about people who got complacent and shook off the oppression of comfort to tour and play music. Similarly warmer, slightly more grown up approaches can be found in "The Weekenders," "We Can Get Together," and the pleasantly dramatic album closer "A Slight Discomfort." In these songs, we see The Hold Steady growing up and hinting that they still know how to put a compelling song together even if most of the album's rockers feel more Mellencamp than Springsteen. They may have lost a valuable member when Nicolay decided to move on, but if The Hold Steady can tap into the warmth and passion of this album's few standout tracks, then perhaps we can look forward to celebrating their next album as a much needed return to form.
The Hold Steady's Heaven is Whenever is available 5/4 from Vagrant Records.