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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
The answer, as it turns out, is to get bigger. For Stay Positive, the follow-up to 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, the Hold Steady has added a few new baubles to its back of tricks. The tales of young suburban angst and redemption are still here, but the band augments them here with occasionally unexpected touches – some strings here, a little harpsichord there; even a talk box solo pops up at one point. And yes, the rumors are true: Singer Craig Finn – he of the not-so-velvet fog – has been taking singing lessons.
Given all this, it’ll surely be tempting for some longtime fans to start screaming “sellout,” but that’s just silly – this is a band, after all, that was founded on the premise that the scope and polish of Last Waltz-era the Band is preferable to the ironic detachment and DIY aesthetic that became rock’s ruling order in the ‘90s. They’ve often been compared to the E Street Band, which isn’t entirely appropriate, but it hits close enough to underscore the point – this is music that’s supposed to appeal to the broadest audience possible, and just because it’s been inexplicably championed by hipsters doesn’t alter the classic rock components at its core.
Still, even if the band’s music is just a new blazer over an old shirt and tie, that doesn’t mean the Hold Steady doesn’t have a few things to offer – chief among them Craig Finn’s hyper-literate, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, which wed Springsteen’s belief in the redemption of rock & roll with an English major’s dog-eared rhyming dictionary. Finn gets right to work on Stay Positive’s opening track, the urgent “Constructive Summer,” evoking the warm sprawl of a thousand summer nights with lines such as “Me and my friends are like / The drums on ‘Lust for Life’ / We pound it out on floor toms / Our psalms are sing-along songs…Let this be my annual reminder / That we can all be something bigger.”
Yes, it’s so totally E Street that you can almost smell the Jersey shore. But the band doesn’t confine itself to the boardwalk here – on tracks like “Navy Sheets,” with its watery New Wave synths, and the tense, harpsichord and organ-laced “Joke About Jamaica,” Stay Positive explores broader horizons. These sojourns are rarely as satisfying as the moments when they ride those surging guitars to more familiar destinations – but what ambition costs them in overall cohesion and/or entertainment value, it should more than earn them in career longevity.
Like most hotly anticipated albums, Stay Positive ultimately feels like less of a home run than it should; it’s hard to listen to these songs and understand what exactly the hype is all about. If you’re a fan of, say, Southside Johnny, the band’s buzz may prove exceptionally irritating – but even then, you’ll find it hard to argue against the instant appeal of tracks like “Constructive Summer,” the ‘Mats-ish “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” or the Sugar-esque “Yeah Sapphire.” They may not deserve all the attention they’re getting, but God bless ‘em for keeping honest-to-goodness rock & roll alive. If they ever manage to grow into the boots they’re trying to fill, they might rate their own Last Waltz one of these days.