Towns on the edge of darkness

The Hold Steady explore the shadows on Stay Positive
By MICHAEL ATCHISON  |  July 14, 2008
IN THE PANTHEON Nicolay, Kubler, Drake, Polivka, and Finn.

What do you do on the mornings after the massive nights, when exhilaration turns to exhaustion, when faith gives way to doubt, when you’re faced with burning out or growing up? Indie rock heroes the Hold Steady provide the answer in the title to their fourth sensational album. You gotta Stay Positive.
Craig Finn, the band’s principal songwriter, crafts hard-rocking novellas full of poets, pushers, users, barflies, and strangely uninhibited Catholic girls, with words that fly like bullets in the rat-tat-tat of his Gatling gun delivery. From the moment YouTube captured him erupting into joyful spasms while singing “Rosalita” next to the Boss himself, Finn’s reputation as Bruce Springsteen’s spiritual heir was cemented. And though the comparisons aren’t entirely apt, they’re hard to ignore, right down to the conceptual and aesthetic arc of the Hold Steady’s recorded output. After two albums of blazing songs and wild wordplay earned critical praise but minimal sales, the third disc changed the game by streamlining the sound and syllables on anthems brimming with confidence and hope. Sound familiar? And if 2006’s Boys and Girls in America was the Hold Steady’s Born to Run, Stay Positive is their Darkness On the Edge of Town, where the cocksure auteur grows older and less certain of his place in the world, questioning himself and his beliefs like never before. The echoes are evident from the opening track, “Constructive Summer,” where friends in a dead-end town drink on top of water towers and dare to dream of something better. Keep pushin’ till these badlands start treating us good.

But dreams come with eyes wide open on an album of hard truths and harsh consequences. From the beginning, the Hold Steady’s songs have swelled with tales of excess, but on Stay Positive, the stories are less celebratory, more cautionary. Instead of participating in parties in Finn’s native Minneapolis, we fan out across the country to observe people in the shadowy margins of small towns, facing frailty, fate, and faith.

Religion has always been a linchpin of the Hold Steady’s songs, with Catholic kids rebelling against social constraints. On Stay Positive, though, faith is personal, complicated, and even compromised, like in “Yeah Sapphire,” where Finn asks, “If I cross myself when I come would you maybe receive me,” leaping from sacred to profane in a jaw-dropping instant. But Finn has never wrestled with religion more reverently than on the melodically elegant and lyrically bruising “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” one of the band’s most arresting songs yet. When drugs ravage the girl he wants but can’t have, the narrator confesses his doubt directly to God, before finally surrendering: “I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine, so I mostly just pray she don’t die,” he says, belief hanging by a thread.

When that thread snaps, Finn finds faith in rock and roll. “Our psalms are sing-along songs,” he declares in the album’s very first verse, and the belief in those sacred texts is reaffirmed seven tracks later when he shouts “the sing-along songs will be our scriptures.” Music also serves as a proxy for formal education. “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been our only decent teacher,” Finn sings in a line that recalls Springsteen’s “we learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

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