Any layman who witnesses an initial meeting between two hipsters will observe a deceptively friendly fight to the death. A discussion of say, Devendra Banhart leads to Joanna Newsom, then Pentangle, then the Incredible String Band, then Comus, then Planxty—and onward until all relevance has been sucked from the room, and all the joy of listening to music has been supplanted by obscure facts and arcane name-dropping.
Almost Killed Me, the Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, was a lot like one of those excruciating conferences. Tad Kubler’s guitar melodies are overly eager-to-please, combining the apple-grabbing epicness of Meat Loaf and the endearing rough edges of the Replacements. Singer Craig Finn’s Springsteenian voice lent itself to lyrics chock-full of too-easy, pointless allusions to proper nouns and trademarked names—“She said my name is Steve Perry but people call me Circuit City,” he sang in “The Swish,” following it up with, “She said my name’s Neil Schon but some people call me Nina Simone. Some people call me André Cymone.” (Cymone, in case you didn’t get the reference, was a minor star in Prince’s galaxy who later married Jody Watley, who, oh, never mind.)
On last year’s Separation Sunday, though, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis band settled down a bit. The songs had a natural narrative, and Kubler didn’t seem as desperate to crib from arena-rock melodies. And if the band decided to reclaim some of the worst things the ’70s wrought—Bruce Springsteen piano parts and the AOR riffs—it also took one of the best: the concept album. Separation Sunday told the interconnected stories of three young Minneapolis down-and-out pill freaks who’d already appeared in songs on the first record. Finn, though still completely fascinated with narcotics, used Catholic imagery (he did go to Boston College, after all) to illustrate themes of degradation and redemption that were decidedly more like the loser tales of Lou Reed’s Berlin than the Randian space opera of Rush’s 2112.
Boys and Girls in America maintains that evolving tradition. Drug talk? Check. Meaty classic-rock hooks? Check. Overwrought Catholic guilt? Check. Twin Cities boosterism? Double check. The most apparent improvement is that, opposed to the nasally, nerdy scat that Finn employed on previous albums, he’s actually crooning now, which is a lot more suitable for fist-pumping, crowd sing-alongs such as the anthemic “Massive Night.” But what’s most noticeable about the Hold Steady’s new model is restraint, especially on album opener “Stuck Between Stations,” about the suicide of poet John Berryman in Minneapolis.
Toward the song’s start, Finn quotes the Kerouac line that inspired the album’s title: “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” In the past, Finn might have just delivered another portrait of wasted youth, but here he narrows his focus on Berryman, the doomed boozy poet—“There was that night that we thought that John Berryman could fly/ But he didn’t, so he died/ She said, ‘You’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life’/And they didn’t, so he died.” This time around, Finn’s reference to a literary figure is a genuinely earnest gesture and doesn’t seem superfluous or ironic. And Kubler, though still deploying muscular riffs, chooses sinewy strong ones instead—could he be getting comfortable with having his own style? Though Charlemagne, Gideon, and Holly, the three main characters from Separation Sunday, reappear on “First Night,” Boys and Girls isn’t a direct conceptual sequel. The Mini Apple still provides the setting for many of the songs, but Finn, perhaps tipping us with the “in America” in the album’s title, now paints portraits of jittery ennui and accidental romance that are national in scope.
The title of “Chips Ahoy!” takes a step back toward distracting, goofy product placements. But its catchy chorus—“How’m I supposed to know that you’re high if you won’t let me touch you?/How’m I supposed to know that you’re high if you won’t even dance?”—and theme of horse racing, a rarity in rock, makes the silly name forgivable. Kubler’s guitar takes a backseat to Franz Nicolay’s keyboards: pianos that tinkle and clank like church bells in the wind; organ sounds that churn like a more caffeinated version of Boston’s “Foreplay.”
It’s tempting to think of the Hold Steady as guided by the twin engines of Finn and Kubler, who were both in the band Lifter Puller. But Boys and Girls is notable for Nicolay’s remarkable keyboard skills. From the double-barreled boogie of “Hot Soft Light” to the Wagnerian grandiosity of “Party Pit,” Nicolay plays like the second coming of Meat Loaf collaborator and E Street Band member Roy Bittan (and with his beret and Van Dyke, he’s starting to look like Bittan, too).
Finn, on the other hand, wants to tell the stories of the drunk and dispossessed, to be the Nelson Algren of the courier-bag set. He wants to channel those late night, beery moments when the distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow, between irony and sincerity, are washed away. On “Hot Soft Light,” he sings, “Started recreational/It ended kinda medical/It came on hot and soft and then/It tightened up its tentacles.” It’s a beautiful evocation of scarily ephemeral druggy bliss, and its impact isn’t lessened by the fact that Kubler sounds like he’s playing a stripped-down version of the guitar part from Toto’s “Hold the Line.”
Finn’s tortured relationship with his religion is a perfect thematic match for the band’s often-overblown tunes. With its over-the-top drama and imagery, Catholicism is the Meat Loaf of religions. Not to mention that the Catholics are all about having some Jesus juice. Finn never sounds so sincere as when he’s singing about the Lord. On “Citrus,” a quiet acoustic song nestled among the more rollicking numbers, he sings, “I feel Jesus in the tenderness of honest nervous lovers/I feel Judas in the pistols and the pagers that come with all the powders.” It’s enough to give you a Jim Carroll flashback. As Kubler sweetly strums the outro, Finn ends the song, “Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.” With a little marketing nudge, Finn could easily become the Catholic version of Christian indie icon David Bazan.
The album’s only misstep is “Chillout Tent,” mostly due to the out-of-place, phoned-in vocal contribution of Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner (what, no one from Rifle Sport was available?). Finn already provides voices for so many disparate characters that the inclusion of another singer seems clumsy. But maybe Pirner’s presence is just another pop-culture reference. For Finn, such shoutouts are really just signifiers for more meaningful things. Finn’s got the wonk-friendly glasses and disarming paunch of any number of hipsters striving to one-up one another with their Wikipedic knowledge of bullshit, but just like his band’s love of chart-topping working-class rock is no in-joke, he’s no elitist. The Hold Steady is having a party, and everyone is invited. Like the debauched tales and the refusal to abandon Minneapolis (as a subject if not a homebase), it’s all about maintaining a sense of community, irony be damned. And I’ll maintain that position until some other hipster makes a better argument to the contrary.CP