Heaven is Whenever starts with the sound of a record turning on and a twangy steel guitar. No you didn’t accidentally download the new Band of Horses; The Hold Steady really does start their new record with an alt-country ballad. A pretty good one too. “The Sweet Part of the City” is the hangover from the big party that’s been The Hold Steady discography to date. Its a definite left turn, but a gorgeous, stark one that pushes The Band influence to the fore, even while tying in Craig Finn’s usual lyrical obsessions (“we were bored so we started a band,” he sings – calling back to “Positive Jam” – before finishing with “we’d like to pray for you”). It is a shame that what follows is so uninspired.
After four albums worth of their Springsteen-by-way-of-Replacements booze-rock, it seemed like there were big changes in store for The Hold Steady. Longtime multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay departed for greener pastures while the band’s profile steadily grew and grew. But more than that, their music had begun to feel like it was losing its effectiveness. 2008′s Stay Positive, while solid, felt like a summation of what The Hold Steady had done thus far (especially on the title track, which worked in references to five or six previous songs); the end of one phase in The Hold Steady’s career and the beginning of another one.
So it is disappointing that Heaven is Whenever is just more of the same. Songs like “Soft in the Center,” “The Weekenders,” and “Rock Problems” all blend together in a mess of power chords and Biblical allusions. I realize complaining that all Hold Steady songs sound like Hold Steady songs is a little disingenious, but there’s something particularly uninspired and even a little joyless about this particular set of them. Even the highpoints, like “Hurricane J,” aren’t as fist-pumpingly exciting as their older stuff.
It doesn’t help that Craig Finn’s lyrics feel stretched out and bloated. “Soft in the Center’s” big sing-along lyric, “you can’t get every girl/you get the ones you love the best” aims for his usual barstool wisdom but ends up being so saccharine that even Wayne Coyne would laugh at it. “Its not going to be like in romantic comedies/in the end I bet no one learns a lesson” could be a nod at LCD Soundsystem (although that’s outside of the usual classic rock and hardcore wheelhouse) but more just comes off as a dumb lyric. And there’s even a somewhat embarassing “get off my lawn” rant crammed in the middle of “The Smidge.”
Like a Hold Steady character, Heaven is Whenever rallies towards the finish, first on the Okkervil River-esque “Barely Breathing,” a witty and bouncey tribute to hardcore. “We Can Get Together’s” big finish is kind of nice, even if the requisite trip through Craig Finn’s record collection is kind of a slog. And “A Slight Discomfort” is not just a great title for a song, but a near-gothic flourish (perhaps borrowed from tourmates Drive-By Truckers) that finishes the album with a haunting refrain: “this shouldn’t hurt/but you might feel a slight discomfort.” Its another departure for The Hold Steady; if “Sweet Part of the City” started the record by pushing The Band influence to the foreground then “A Slight Discomfort” turns it down to zero and instead focuses on (believe it or not) Broken Social Scene-esque swelling instrumental dynamics.
Ultimately, Hold Steady songs thrive on specificity and density, but aside from gimmicks (like the references on “We Can Get Together”) Heaven is Whenever is lacking in both. Both sonically and lyrically, the record is flaccid and hollow. Perhaps Nicolay was more important to The Hold Steady sound than we thought. Or perhaps the band is simply trying to play to the back of the larger and larger venues they find themselves playing in. Or perhaps I’ve just had enough of Craig Finn’s rock and roll problems. I hope its not the latter, that my problem with the newest Hold Steady record isn’t simply that its another new Hold Steady record, but I’m not sure. There’s enough about Heaven is Whenever to suggest a band looking to branch out in a new direction and chase some different muses for a while. Unfortunately, they’re just hints on a record that, for the most part, is willing to settle for much less.
Jonah’s Score: 52
TUIW Grade: C