Diminishing returns

The Hold Steady make it hard to Stay Positive
By RICHARD BECK  |  July 9, 2008

WHERE’S THE IDIOSYNCRASY? Finn’s characters have always been sick, tired, and fried; on Stay Positive, for the first time, they’re boring.

There is a song on the Hold Steady’s debut album, Almost Killed Me (French Kiss, 2004), where the narrator fights a losing battle against his nicknames: “I been tryin’ to get people to call me Freddy Knuckles. But people keep calling me Right Said Fred.” He tries again and again: “Freddy Mercury?” Nope. “Drop Dead Fred?” It’s no use. A nickname is a little story about its owner, and Freddy is trying to fend off the stories that other people tell about him. For a while, Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn wrote terrific stories. Matched to his band’s charismatic synthesis of classic ’70s rock and hardcore, these stories crackled, writhing, contentious little narratives ready to burst at the seams with energy and detail.

But on Stay Positive (Vagrant), Finn has decided he’d rather speak directly to all those grinning kids who’ve been crowding his shows for the past four years. Cut out the middleman narrator, I guess the theory goes. Get your message right to the people. Get this, straight from Finn himself, in a press release concerning the new album: “These are our lives. These are your lives. This is our fourth record.”

Confident in his band’s access to the universal truths of adolescence, Finn laces Stay Positive with lines like “Let this be my annual reminder/That we could all be something bigger.” Just don’t ask him what that “bigger” might be. The characters on the band’s first two albums are brought to life by the alchemical intersection of Finn’s declamatory voice and guitarist Tad Kubler’s agile, caroming slabs of distortion and feedback. It’s not just that their second CD, Separation Sunday (French Kiss, 2005), is a concept album that maintains a three-person cast — Holly, Charlemagne, and Gideon — over the course of its 11 tracks. By their words, actions, and quirky obscurities, these characters light the fires of their own individuality. Here is Gideon’s reading of Genesis: “Yeah, I guess I heard about original sin/I heard the dude blamed the chick/I heard the chick blamed the snake/And I heard they were naked when they got busted.” A character from Almost Killed Me introduces himself in “Hostile, Mass.”: “Hey, my name is Corey/And I’m really into hardcore/People call me Hard Corey!”

There’s nothing so idiosyncratic, nothing so funny on Stay Positive. The songs still teem with drug-addled romantics who would make it to church if only they weren’t so high, but they don’t do their thing in any way that might illuminate them. On “Yeah Sapphire,” Finn’s narrator announces, “I’m sick and I’m tired and I’m fried and you gotta believe me.” Finn’s characters have always been sick, tired, and fried; on Stay Positive, for the first time, they’re boring. They do what Finn wants them to. They never get up and walk around on their own.

This decreased narrative wattage bleeds into Finn’s singing as well. On those first two discs, his words spilled out in a thrilling, catastrophic rush. Now he favors a more straightforward voice, a sandpapery moan punctuated by perfunctory group sing-alongs. There are a few moments where he gets his blood up — “Navy Sheets,” for one — but there aren’t nearly enough.

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