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Consensus Non-Consensus: The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive

In the mid 00’s a curious type of rock n roll revival happened. For the first time since the 1980’s, a new wave of bands were taking the sounds of Classic Rock and fusing it with indie/alternative to form a new, if extremely familiar form of rock music. This movement peaked commercially with release of The Killers sophomore album Sam’s Town in October of 2006. While Sam’s Town proved once and for all that one of the great single’s bands of that decade were never going to record a particularly good album, on a relatively smaller scale The Hold Steady were making two genre defining LPs.

With Separation Sunday in 2005, they composed an epic rock opera replete with Catholic imagery. Then in 2006 came Boys and Girls in America, a perfect fusion of mid-western post-Replacements indie and Springsteen style blue collar poetry (it was released on the same day Brandon Flowers suddenly started wearing Craig Finn’s glasses and singing in an affected tremolo, so make of that what you will). The Hold Steady received rapturous praise, and suddenly found themselves courting a healthy audience of young indie kids and cool dads, both groups appreciating the band’s unique take on classic rock.

While The Hold Steady had developed a signature sound, they found themselves painted into a bit of a corner. If they shifted their sound too radically, they would lose the core sonic elements that defined the band, try to recapture old idea’s and they ran the risk of sounding stale. With Stay Positive, they ended up airing on the side of repetition, but by expanding their instrumentation and sticking to a familiar template, they proved they still had a lot of songs worth hearing.

The album opens with “Constructive Summer” which is just about the most quintessential Hold Steady song the band ever released, and I mean that as a compliment. Next is “Sequestered In Memphis” the first single from the record. If “quintessential Hold Steady song followed by first single” sounds familiar, that’s because it was the same sequence the band used on Boys and Girls In America. The similarities don’t stop there, the fourth track is the Hardcore/Metal outlier, fifth is the epic power ballad, sixth is the rollicking opener to side B, and tenth is the story song.

This probably sounds like a set up to why Stay Positive is a failure, but it remains a resounding success. Sure, “Lord, I’m Discouraged” follows the same template as “First Night” but the band commits to the power ballad concept in a much more complete way than they would have dared on previous records. The soaring, top of the mountain solo Tad Kubler unleashes at the songs crescendo is brimming with the confidence of a band who knew they couldn’t top their previous masterpiece, but went ahead and tried anyway.

Elsewhere on the record, we see Craig Finn expand his lyrical palette to match the new instrumentation. On “One For The Cutters” Finn uses his gift for storytelling to spin a tale about an innocent young girl at a liberal arts college who began to “party with townies.” Against Franz Nicolay’s eerie harpsichord, Finn talks of a wild party gone bad, using flashes of imagery like “ butterfly knives” and “the holes in his jacket” to give us a vague idea of what’s happened. In the end the girl’s rich family wipes the whole incident away in court, but the protagonist has clearly been shaken. “When she came home for Christmas, she just seemed distant and different” says Finn, as the song suddenly drops out from under him.

Whether it’s the “course of empire” story of a music scene dissolving on “Joke About Jamaica” or epic closer “Slapped Actress,” which is high in the running for the best song the band ever recorded, Stay Positive is a resounding success. Sure, it doesn’t have the raw poetic intensity of Separation Sunday, or the generational statement scope of Boys And Girls In America. No, Stay Positive committed the sin of merely being an almost great expansion of The Hold Steady’s core principles. It isn’t without it’s flaws, “Both Crosses” takes it’s time going nowhere, and “Navy Sheets” is just bad, but Stay Positive is an essential listen for anyone who is a fan of post millennial classic rock.

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