I have been loath to write about The Hold Steady, even though I think they are one of the most significant bands working today, mostly because I fear that often more is concealed than is revealed when mixing criticism with art. I also wouldn’t want to force a religious, and more specifically, Catholic paradigm on a band that is much too smart to be hijacked by such treatment. Third, most theological analysis of popular culture ends up drowning all its delicious irony in a sea of overwrought earnest moralizing and gratuitous name-dropping, and with that in mind, I have not wanted to suck the life out of The Hold Steady by chaining them to any particular academic agenda, as Sean Dempsey did for America. Yet, as most academics and journalists are parasites by nature, feeding off the living blood of real creativity, I found the sanguinary odor of their new album, Stay Positive, released this week, too potent to resist.
The Christian narrative has found its way into many of lead singer/songwriter and Boston College graduate Craig Finn’s lyrics, but his images of crucifixion and resurrection juxtaposed with stories of heavy drug use and young lust do not suggest any easy celebration of the saving power of the Gospel leading to moral perfection. Most of Finn’s characters find themselves simultaneously “high as hell and born again.” This is to say that choosing sin and choosing grace is not an either/or proposition in the theological world of The Hold Steady, but rather, Finn’s protagonists usually find themselves simultaneously justified and sinful such that the rock and roll resurrections recounted in his lyrics usually feel more like crucifixions making the memory of Saturday night’s decent into debauchery always much sweeter than Sunday morning’s Eucharist. This theme is most palpably present on The Hold Steady’s second album, Separation Sunday. It ends with the honest and anthemic “How A Resurrection Really Feels,” which tells the story of Holly, who finds her way back to the church after the “lovely” party scene turns “druggy and ugly and bloody.” Finn narrates her return singing, “The priest just kinda laughed. / The deacon caught a draft. / She crashed into the Easter mass / with her hair done up in broken glass. / She was limping left on broken heels. / When she said father can I tell your congregation / how a resurrection really feels?”
One might be tempted to read this scene as the “rock bottom” experience preceding Holly’s resurrection to wholeness, but this would be to miss the promise of the song’s title to present human resurrections as they really are–disheveled, desperate, and stumbling attempts to stand in the face of a scene gone bad. The truth of the matter is that Holly wouldn’t have come back if the scene had remained “lovely,” which is why the refrain at the end of the song repeats, “Don’t turn me on again, / I’ll probably just go and get myself all gone again.” The message is that resurrection is tough stuff, and you don’t do it unless you have to. This is the paradoxical tension that makes The Hold Steady, and Finn’s song writing, so compelling. Sunday morning does not feel better than Saturday night, but once Saturday night is over Sunday morning is all you have.
The Hold Steady’s new disc has been hailed as a more mature effort, which finds Finn and company trying to “stay positive” as they get older. The songs on Stay Positive have as much to do with nostalgia for the bliss of youth as with aging gracefully. The opening song, “Constructive Summer,” celebrates the promise of a “lovely” party scene as Finn shouts, “We’re going to build something this summer!” The hope for communal transcendence through chemically re-created “love and trust” has never been more joyously proclaimed or more quickly eclipsed by the real consequences of the mob chorus’s stated intentions to “get hammered,” as Finn sings, “all my friends are dying or are already dead.” With that, Saturday night begins its descent through run-ins with the law (“Sequestered in Memphis”), self-destructive behavior (“One for the Cutters”), gratuitous sex and violence (“Navy Sheets,” “Yeah Sapphire”). This last song ends with Finn admitting, “I need someone to come and pick me up,” and repeating, “I was a skeptic at first, but these miracles work.”
The center-piece of the album comes on the heels of this turn to the “miraculous.” In “Both Crosses,” Finn again returns to church by narrating the experience of a girl who has seen enough. He sings, “She’s known a couple boys that died / and two of them were crucified / and the last one had enlightened eyes / but the first guy he was Jesus Christ. / Hey Judas, I know you made a grave mistake. / Hey Peter, you’ve been pretty sweet since Easter break.” Maintaining the tension of the story, Finn suggests that his protagonist is equal parts betraying Judas and faithful Peter, and Finn remains conflicted as to which is the more compelling personality, as he ends the song meditatively repeating, “I’ve been thinking about both crosses.” In true form, Finn remains unresolved when it comes to the promise of salvation via religion. He’s not a skeptic but believing in miracles does not necessarily make him a Christian. In the end, the miracle is not Christ, for Finn, but it’s the fact that in spite of all the crumbling idols of sex, drugs, and religion, rock and roll has made it possible for him to “stay positive.”
As the meditative “Both Crosses” fades, the halleluiah chorus of the title track kicks up and Finn delivers the real gospel message of Stay Positive. He sings, “There’s gonna come a time when the scene’ll seem less sunny. / It’ll probably get druggy and the kids’ll seem too skinny. / There’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go / with whoever’s gonna get her the highest. / There’s gonna come a time when the true scene leaders / forget where they differ and get big picture / cause the kids at their shows, they’ll have kids of their own / the sing-a-long songs’ll be our scriptures / we gotta stay positive.” For The Hold Steady, the trick is to remain cheerful amidst the daily tragedy of failures to make good on our desire to transcend our own humanity. For Finn, this cheerfulness comes in the visceral music of the Dionysian festival that is rock and roll, which hangs on that miraculous edge between skepticism and belief. The Hold Steady is not a Christian band, but it is a band concerned with crucifixions and resurrections. Craig Finn is no Gospel preacher, but he is “high as hell and born again.” The band doesn’t claim to offer salvation, but, as Finn shouted from the stage at a concert I attended in Brooklyn last summer, “There is so much joy in what [they] do!” And that is more than many of the most earnest believers can say.