Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Support City Paper!
At its best, the Hold Steady has been a perfect amalgam of the early E Street Band (the orchestral bar-band sweep), the Replacements (the performances strung together with spit, beer, and prayer) and the New York Dolls (the celebration of a gutter-lowlife milieu): The band’s first two albums came across like febrile, funny communiqués from the underground. But like Tori Amos (hey, if the band can reference Kate Bush, then surely it can withstand this comparison), the Hold Steady got into trouble once it became keenly aware of its audience—in its case, on the 2006 album Boys and Girls in America. Like Amos, the Hold Steady’s members abandoned songs that were intensely personal if clearly fictionalized, and began writing not for themselves but as the voice of those who’d annointed them their spokesmen. That’s one definition of pandering, and the Hold Steady doesn’t get far into Heaven Is Whenever before vowing to keep at it: The opening song, “Sweet Part of the City,” may begin uncharacteristically with an acoustic slide guitar, but it ends with Craig Finn repeating the line “We’d like to play for you” right before the band erupts into “Soft in the Center,” which rehashes the guitar lurch of Separation Sunday’s “Banging Camp.” If the band is recycling its tricks, well, it may not have had much of a choice, since any opportunity for head-clearing and retrenchment after last year’s live album A Positive Rage was likely complicated by the recent departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Perhaps to reassure fans it will get by absent his mustache-waxed glory, the band continues its descent into rote formula throughout Heaven Is Whenever. Too many songs sound like too many other Hold Steady songs: The chorus of “Weekenders” recalls “You Can Make Him Like You,” while “Barely Breathing” swings with the staccato slashing of “Cattle and the Creeping Things.” Even the album’s best rocker, “The Smidge,” never comes into its own, hampered by echoes of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “The Swish.” Finn, meanwhile, just keeps getting more and more domesticated. Where once he spat out his words like an adenoidal fountain racing for time, now he’s just singing, if still adenoidally. When he croons, “Paradise is by the dashboard light/Utopia’s a band, they sang ‘Love Is the Answer’/And I think they’re probably right,” he’s handing the steering wheel of his own song to folks who’ve come before; he might as well tell his fans to listen to Meat Loaf instead. Still, a small handful of new ideas do creep in. “Sweet Part of the City” and “We Can Get Together” rely on acoustic guitar to a degree that’s new to the band. And “Barely Breathing” is hooked by a surprisingly effective klezmer clarinet that suggests fresh territory, even as it’s immediately followed by the by-the-numbers “Our Whole Lives.” The song is fine for what it is, but it’s more evidence that on album No. 5, the band seems to have mistaken going through the motions for holding perfectly steady.