Rock ’n’ roll, or at least the ’70s FM classic canon, has never been shy about selling glitzy fantasies to the lumpen masses. Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero,” Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good,” and Argent’s “God Gave Rock and Roll To You” were messages that every impressionable male—from penniless high-school boys to day laborers whose rusted pickups were held together with faded rock-station bumper stickers—could live the dream. Though that dream may have manifested itself
as a longing for coke-encrusted limos, Caligula-esque hotel-suite parties, and indiscriminate throngs of groupies, the real dream being sold was one of wealth and improved class status.
The rock ’n’ roll class-fantasy express, however, runs both ways: Plenty of rock bands have penned songs romanticizing workaday life. But whether it was the Canadian nerds in Rush or the pompous egotists in Styx letting loose with songs like “Working Man” and “Blue Collar Man,” the gesture has usually come off as insincere. Try to imagine Neil Peart laying down roof tiles with three nails and a smoldering Doral in his mouth. A few acts at least tried to have it both ways, as if to say, “Sure we’re hedonistic millionaires, but this rockin’ lifestyle is just as hard as your life, you proles!” To wit: Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” and AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).”
Over the course of four albums, including the new Stay Positive, the Hold Steady, a Brooklyn-based quintet that often gets compared to Bruce Springsteen, has ably demonstrated its knowledge of classic rock tropes, both sonic and thematic. And they’re surely aware of rock’s relationship to class politics—the band’s very existence plays into the fantasy. The story in brief: Guys in a moderately successful indie band, Lifter Puller, quit making music, move to New York and get office jobs; soon, most of the old crew gets back together to make some uncommercial, straightforward rock; eventually their days of collating and clockwatching end and they’re writing songs backstage in Manchester and opening for the Rolling Stones.
Through it all, the Hold Steady has always played at being larger than its station, leading crowd chant-alongs like its members were more used to Wembley than rock dives. On the new album’s “Constructive Summer,” frontman Craig Finn reveals grand intentions by singing, “Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.” But this grandiosity is just part of song that also includes the lines, “Work at the mill and then you die/We’re gonna build something this summer.” (Not that the song’s a labor-law lecture. The rest of the band is bellowing “Get hammered!” in the background.) It’s telling that while the name-dropping has diminished on Stay Positive, Finn still offers a respectful nod to lefty, labor-loving “Saint Joe Strummer, our only decent teacher.”
“Constructive Summer” reveals a change in perspective: Though the Hold Steady’s musical style has always been of the lunchpail-swingin’ bar-rock variety, Finn’s lyrics have usually been less about the rundown poor than the burned-out party kids. That changes on Stay Positive: Finn more directly addresses working-class themes, spinning tales of slightly older characters who are actually sweating their way through the drudgery. “One for the Cutters,” for instance, paints a picture of callused rabble and the reasons they party with abandon; the title refers to the blue-collar townie bicyclists of the film Breaking Away, constantly at war with the more privileged college kids. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay adorns the song with aristocratic-sounding harpsichord curlicues, but Finn concerns himself with the recreational habits of the broke and hopeless: “Where townies would gather and drink until blackout/Smoke cigs till they’re sick/Pack bowls and then pass out/Windows wide open to let the hard rock in/Theirs was a rage that didn’t need much convincing.”
The Drive-By Truckers might deserve some of the credit for expanding Finn’s consciousness beyond the party pit: That band’s frontman, Patterson Hood, harmonizes on “Navy Sheets,” an underachieving, New Wave-y song about regrettable trysts. And there are more country-and-western influences on Stay Positive than before. “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is a slow weeper that would fit in well on a DBT set list, thanks especially to Tad Kubler’s intricate Southern-rock solo. On an ambiguous murder ballad, “Both Crosses,” Kubler finds his own way to bridge the class divide, producing a guitar sound somewhere between glitzy gunslinger Richie Sambora and Calexico’s dusty Joey Burns, while J Mascis contributes a ghostly banjo.
Yet all of Stay Positive’s talk of class warfare, depression, and murder shouldn’t suggest a modern version of Springsteen’s Nebraska. The record is called Stay Positive for a reason: The general vibe of the record is enthusiastic, and the title track is marked by a raucous bar-chant chorus: ”Wo ho ho/Wo ho ho/Wo ho ho/We gotta stay positive!” Kubler revs his guitar and Finn addresses his rock fame in his own modest way: “Get a lot of double takes when I’m coming around the corners/It’s mostly pretty nice, yeah it’s mostly pretty all right/’Cause most kids give me credit for being down with it.” “Massive Nights,” from 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, had been the best showcase for The Hold Steady’s throbbing, coliseum sing-along anthemic style, but “Stay Positive” supplants it for now.
Not that he’s explicit about what’s to be positive about; there’s a certain vagueness across the disc. “Sequestered in Memphis” is a jaunty bit of barroom rock with mysterious allusions to interstate legal problems, and Finn generally imbues Stay Positive with a sense of intrigue. The funny lines are easy enough to decipher, however, as Finn sums up a girl’s lethargy—and by extension an entire city’s—with the line, “I know I look tired, but everything’s fried here in Memphis.” He then tops that with a bitchy gem: “In barlight, she looked all right/In daylight, she looked desperate.” That line speaks to another piece of rock tradition: The world of the Hold Steady has a boys-only, treehouse mentality, where girls are often tragic party victims, irritating hangers-on, or complicated conquests. While Finn’s women are well drawn and nuanced, their essential roles are little different from the ones AC/DC offered them.
Nobody said making the dream seem real was going to be easy. But by the album’s end, the band’s quite nearly pulled it off. On the album’s closer, “Slapped Actress,” Finn, true to the canon, sings of the pressures of rock stardom, “Some nights, it’s just entertainment/ Some other nights it’s work/They come in for the feeding/Sit in stadium seating/They’re holding their hands out/For the body and blood, now.” The band counters this drama-queen bit with a genuinely uplifting gospel chorus coda. Finn seems to lead a rock ’n’ roll communion, where band and audience are one in the body of rock. The dream may be a sham, but for those brief moments when he inspires the bleary-eyed to sing along, it’s real enough.