Not that The Hold Steady have to rely purely on cult power. The comparisons to Springsteen have netted them fans in older demographics and ensured that there’s easily as many people waiting to hear ‘Heaven Is Whenever’ as there is people waiting on the third album from other Boss protégés, The Gaslight Anthem. Of course these two groups are still wildly different and The Hold Steady have always been a more more conventional rock proposition than their punkier counterparts. And if there’s one thing that we can take away from this album, about its creators, it is that they are a rock band of the best American tradition.
Pre-release press on the sound of the album has commented on the more guitar orientated sound that the band are pushing, following on from the departure of their keyboard player Franz Nicolay. Whilst it is the case that there’s a hole in The Hold Steady’s sound where Nicolay’s parts used to be, it has been somewhat misleading in implying a more fist-pumping, ‘large venue’ direction. The Hold Steady, and frontman Craig Finn in particular are still primarily storytellers and on ‘Heaven Is Whenever’ it’s the stories that dictate the music, and not the other way around. Rather than being the instantaneous chorus focused anthems of material like ‘You Can Make Him Like You’ the songs are more subtle, taking multiple spins to really sink in.
As is the case with such albums, though it is certainly rewarding. For amongst the stories there’s fantastic (and sometimes just funny) one-liners and an overarching search for the balance between rock and roll and religion. The latter of the two comes to a head in album counterpoint and highlight ‘We Can Get Together’. A slower track that sees the narrator finding peace with both and offering a personal and found meaning. Meanwhile examples of the former can be found across even the weaker songs such as “You’re a beautiful girl, And you’re a pretty good waitress” on ‘Hurricane J’, and it’s these moments that make the album.
With the more stripped back sound and subtler approach, ‘Heaven Is Whenever’ may not be the album from The Hold Steady that people were wanting. But people are frequently wrong and this is a solid record. As windows into seemingly real lives material like ‘The Weekenders’ (a sequel to ‘Chips Ahoy!’) and ‘A Slight Discomfort’ are real fodder for expertly put together mixtapes and combined with their more established material The Hold Steady should be a highlight of this year’s festival season.
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