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Stay Positive

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.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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Eric: I have a theory that there's a great number of bands that, while not being specifically Christian, are "Christ-haunted" (to steal from Flannery O'Connor), or, more accurately, "God-haunted". Take for instance, Modest Mouse: Issac Brock writes about God's power in several songs, including Bukowski off his latest, but also earlier - witness "It's All Nice on Ice Alright." What strikes me about these songs, especially the later, is that it almost seems like Brock assumes the concept of God, then rails against it (Brock claims to be an atheist or agnostic, depending on what you read). Similarly, there's Connor Oberst of Bright Eyes, who is far less afraid to speak of "God" in positive terms (he asks, "if it's salvation that you want, why are you afraid to dream of God?"), but is also willing to take out a flask to the point of "dying from the medication" while making sure to "kill all the pain."Anyway, I see the same sort of thing going on with the Hold Steady, particularly in the songs like Citrus (I completely agree that the America review didn't cover the band, but this song in particular, very well in that article). God-haunted - "I see Judas in the long odds in the rackets on the corners" - but not Godly. God-haunted - the entire song of "How a Resurrection Really Feels," as you noted above - but not Godly.Thanks for posting this!

Although it is impressive that many bands such as The Hold Steady use themes of Christianity, I believe their lofty metaphors are lost on immature and unsophisticated listeners who only take in the lyrics about the descent of "man" into drugs and alcohol--which is the most available drug. I just read a statistic about the steady rise of alcohol abuse among college age women and the tragic number of deaths resulting from it. Although the boomer generation had its share of music about drugs, it seems nothing compared to the "partying gone out of control" themes of much of today's music. The only song I can recall is "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"! Most of our songs were about love. All teens and young people have a steak of rebelliousness; most parents have spend a "lifetime" trying to minimize it, keeping their youngsters focused. I can't help but think that some rock groups force kids to look at the dark side unnecessarily, in the name of God. The sophisication is lost on these kids!

"The only song I can recall is 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'! Most of our songs were about love."There is that old Lennon protestation that the song was written for his kids and had nothing to do with LSD. Maybe. But how about: Dylan's Rainy Day Women or Alice's Restaurant (or pretty much anything by Arlo from that period) or songs that everybody said you had to be high to listen to like Hendrix's Purple Haze or, the worst rock-and-roll song ever written, In a Gaddadavida (which isn't spelled right, I'm sure, and doesn't deserve to be).As for love songs, would that include Seger's The Horizontal Bop or Zappa's Dynamo Hum? The only love song I can come up with is Me and Bobby McGee.To be honest (if it isn't already), I quit paying attention to music after 1970, and all I know is what I read or hear thumping out of the neighbor kid's car, which usually just makes me want to go look for a ball peen hammer.So I appreciate The Young People coming in to tell us about the Music Scene Today, which means I can be informed without having to actually listen to any of it. It only remains for me to mark as a sure sign of the End Times the fact that Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner is now being used as a backdrop to a Mountain Dew Commercial, as if the Revolution/Nike combo wasn't bad enough. There goes another little piece of my heart now, baby.

Jean, thanks for your witty reply! I played each song in my head that you named. You're right, I did forget a few others which I happily listened to back in the day and still do if I'm walking with a CD. However, I have a college age girl, and it does bother me that some of these girls are falling prey to the hard partying that some of these songs' lyrics feed into, especially in the name of Chrisitianity. I do believe the songs are sophisticated in their approach, but the dark side is too often emphasized.

Im curious what particular academic agenda Bugyis feels Sean Dempsey is chained too. After dropping this clever aside, the author moves on without much explanation. In my reading of the review, Dempseys take on The Hold Steady is not that much different that Bugyis. Both authors seems to agree that while the bands music is not Catholic in the traditional way, it does traffic in certain Catholic themes. I would also note that Dempseys review included an interview with lead singer Craig Finn, so it was not as parasitical as most commentary about the band, and therefore not as removed from the bands art as Bugyis seems to suggest.Here is Dempsey describing his conversation with Finn about the song "Citrus":I asked Finn which of his songs most distinctly captured these spiritual sensibilities that he weaves throughout all three of The Hold Steadys albums (with a fourth on the way). He replied unequivocally that the song Citrus from Boys and Girls in America best encapsulates whatever message that he hopes his lyrics convey. A spare, largely acoustic song (in contrast to the big rock riffs that are the norm in most Hold Steady numbers), Citrus is told in the first-person, with deeply confessional language filled with a sense of spiritual longing: I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers / I feel Judas in the long odds of the rackets on the corners. Even this brief quotation embodies several of Finns major themes, including the experience of God amidst the gritty and dangerous life of the streets, where savior figures mingle with those Judases only looking to betray us. Citrus also includes references to the use/abuse of alcohol, but as in most of his songs, Finn is no simple moralizer. Indeed, the songs narrator finds hope in the souls that bars and taverns bring together, alluding to the transcendence that plays at the margins of our most humble social experiences (there is also something distinctly Irish-American in Finns barroom romanticism). Ultimately, however, Citrus is about a longing for love and authenticity in a world in short supply of both. The songs final line leaves the listener on a decidedly ambiguous note: Lost in fog and love and faithless fear / Ive had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.I dont think its fair to say that Dempsey is forcing a Catholic or religious reading on The Hold Steadys music here. Here again is his review. I hope you will read it and draw your own conclusions.Tim Reidy

Eric,I confess to be pretty ignorant about popular music culture, and so I'm happy to receive some introduction and instruction. So thank you for that.At the same time I wondered about one or another of your statements. For example, you write: "most theological analysis of popular culture ends up drowning all its delicious irony in a sea of overwrought earnest moralizing and gratuitous name-dropping..."Now I guess "moralizing" is not recommended (particularly the "overwrought" sort) and probably pretty ineffective anyway; nor would I reduce religion to morality. On the other hand the "drowning" which most concerns me is that of too many young people lost in an alcohol or drug-induced stupor -- even to the tragedy of an all-too-young death; and of families devastated by lost promise.On another thread there was a conversation about "dignity" and "autonomy." I know of young people returning from a Saturday night binge, barely able to walk, clothing missing, battered: showing neither dignity nor autonomy.No "delicious irony" in sight.

I no longer try to understand my students in the specifics of their lives. I don't get their meanness, their anger, their beer bongs, the sexually coarse bumper stickers they put on their facebook pages, the debt they run up in order to drive better cars than I do, their ability to completely detach from the fact that people their own age are off fighting a war on foreign soil.But I also wonder if there's ever been a time in history when young people are not self-absorbed, suffering from problems of their own making, sick of being told what's good for them, and indulging in excesses just to prove they can.My sense is that The Hold Steady is doing what rock music has always done--reflected the landscape of young with an honesty that older people will always find somewhat shocking and frightening in the same way my mother went haywire when she heard Country Joe's Fish Cheer from the Woodstock album.I see a certain amount of self-criticism in the lyrics above, as well as an attempt to navigate the landscape and connect with something good that doesn't always reach back (the priest and the deacon), or that they're only half-heartedly reaching for.

Lester Lanin, anyone?King of the New York dance band contractors, Lester Lanin was still going strong into his nineties, playing "strict tempo" medleys of old favorites and contemporary hits for weddings, debutante balls, fund-raising galas, and other society affairs. Along with his brothers Sam and Howard, Lanin provided music to the upper crust for much of the last four decades. Starting with Eisenhower in 1952, Lanin performed at numerous Presidential inaugural balls, and legend has it that Queen Elizabeth II once rescheduled a royal gala to accomodate Lanin's schedule. USA Today wrote of him in 1992, "For generations of the rich and famous, a society party isn't a society party unless Lanin is there with his back to the tuxedoed crowd."

' There is so much joy in what [they] do! And that is more than many of the most earnest believers can say."Eric, Nietzsche said that Christians don't look redeemed and that must be answered. So much of what we call organized religion is tinged with hypocrisy. Would that we were as motivated to correct that as we are to criticize young people seeking. It is our shame that they are looking for Jesus because we have failed to show him to them. Jesus has always captured the imagination and attention of songsters and poets. Musicians many time capture Jesus better than his so-called ministers. Now with scapulars, Latin, rote prayers and other medieval accoutrements making a comeback, maybe we can see that the message of the restorationists is timbling brass. Again. The Spirit will go where s/he will and most often apart from officialdom.

Tim, thanks so much for your comment. Perhaps I did mention Dempsey too hastily and am guilty of being unfair. So, thank you for the opportunity to clarify. First, Dempsey and I differ quite a bit, in my view, on how we read Finn's lyrics. Dempsey celebrates him as a rock and roll Flannery O'Connor and touts his endorsement of the Jesuits as providing more "bang for your buck" and then goes on to talk about his lyrics as presenting fundamental spiritual dichotomies between Jesus and Judas, sacred and profane--David Tracy set to punk rock. He then concludes by saying, "If the band's growing popularity is any indicator, Catholic themes are a long way from going out of style." All of this seems to be saying too much, while missing the point. The creative juice comes from maintaining the ambiguity in that last line of Citrus. It's not about ratting out Judases and finding Jesus, but its about describing a world where both seem to be equally present in the same human soul, such that one is impossible to distinguish from the other. I think Bill Mazzella's reference to Nietzsche is very apt. The Hold Steady's lyrics present a world where love and betrayal go hand in hand and every high (including religion) leaves you feeling lower than before. Yet, in the face of all that, "we gotta stay positive"; we must hope. That's just the human condition.As for Dempsey being less parasitical because he got an's all about the questions you ask and the way you present and interpret the answers.David, thanks for your comment as well. I like the "God haunted" versus "Godly" distinction, and I love that Bright Eyes song.

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