I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You by The Hold Steady
We missed The Hold Steady.
From 2004 to 2008 they released four albums, the Core Four. Two very good, heady, sometimes poetic ones (Debut: Almost Killed Me (N.B. With the impossibly great line in the first track: I got bored when I didn’t have a band / so I started a band, man), and their fourth album, Stay Positive); and two stunningly brilliant rock novels (2nd and 3rd albums: Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America), both bramble bushes with intricate weaves of divergent and convergent story lines of characters, their choices, their lives, their religion (N.B. Lead singer/songwriter, Craig Finn is definitely indie rock’s most famous Catholic) encased in guitar riffs and piano flourishes punctuated with Finn’s seeming cast-off but brilliant lines spat at you in his oddly effecting sing/speak about lives in the scene (N.B. And there are several scenes: Minneapolis, Penetration Park, Ybor City, The Mississippi River, Denver, and Chicago)
In the last six months, I’ve been on THS overdrive. I’ve begun to think about the Core Four chronologically, how they presented when they were released in the life of THS (N.B. Even though the stories in them aren’t in any way linear). I decided they’re like scaling a mountain.
In AKM, THS introduced Finn’s cast of characters (N.B. See below). In SS he took the seeds sown in AKM and got us worried about Holly and the crew (N.B. and SS is also the album WD first fell in love with and is still prolly his favorite). In BGIA Finn took them and your concerns and propped them up and let them say something important about…us (N.B. The peak of the mountain), and finally SP (whether intentional or not) plays almost as an epilogue:
There’s gonna come a time
When the scene will seem less sunny
It will probably get druggy
And the kids will seem too skinny
Finn’s characters, who lived the scene (N.B. in graphic, poetic, and memorable ways) and then watched it pass them by, have proven to me to be the most enthralling part of the Core Four–of The Hold Steady’s work–of Craig Finn’s story, because they’re his friends too.
(N.B. I’d be completely remiss to not credit the indispensable (N.B. for song/lyric nerds) RapGenius for the assist in pulling me into all this shit.)
Holly (aka Hallelujah and Your Little Hoodrat Friend) If THS has a protagonist, it’s Holly. She’s certainly Finn’s muse, the extension of all the fucked up Catholic shit still inside him; someone’s he’s created and seems pretty desperately attracted to. He puts her (a recovering Catholic (tiny little text etched into her neck / says Jesus lived and died for all your sins) through much. Drug addiction, prostitution, I think even murder, and maybe even resurrection (actual and/or metaphorical) and Finn is disgusted by her too (Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick, but after I get sick, I just get sad) but he ever loses faith in her, and consequently never loses his faith. And because of that she turns into a testament of his faith. Remarkable
Charlemagne, a pimp (you can guess he’s relationship with Holly) who seems to get in over his head, which is hard to do if you’re a pimp, but he ends up coming around.
Gideon, a gang member/skin head who runs drugs and gets Charlemagne in over his head.
Saphire, the other women (N.B. Since I assume that both Charlemagne and Gideon were carnal with Holly) who can predict the winners of horse races which she does to fuel a pretty (un)healthy drug habit (He came out six lengths ahead / she spent the whole next week getting high).
With these four characters (and prolly himself as narrator as well), their interactions, their drug use, their lives in the scene, their damnation, and for some their salvation, Finn said something important about America and religion and redemption.
And he did it all in four albums from 2004 to 2008, and I had no idea it was happening.
WD’s introduction to THS was with undoubtedly their worst album, 2010’s bloated and insipid Heaven is Whenever for which WD (with no knowledge of THS’s prior achievements, such that I might have been disappointed in Heaven) offered a two letter review…eh
Regardless, given my THS emersion the last six months, I really anticipated their new album, Teeth Dreams. Although they hadn’t found a new keyboard/piano player since Franz Nicolay left the band after Stay Positive (N.B. And weirdly this lack of keyboards/pianos on the last two albums has struck me maybe as the thing most separating them from the Core Four), I read that they had quit trying to be rock stars like Heaven is Whenever had smacked of.
Well, that’s true. But what they did do was try and sub in another guitar for a pronounced two(or three)-axe attack. Which I guess plays OK. The problem with Teeth Dreams (and it’s not a bad album) is that it fundamentally changes what THS is. They are no longer America’s best bar band (which I once read them described as such struck me as so accurate it hurt), but just another band trying to say/scream important-ish missives over thrashing guitars. Holly and Gideon became she and he, and I already miss them.
I can only imagine how I’d miss them if I hadn’t known them only six months or so, but was instead a full-on THS groupie like I should have been in their prime living my late 20s with them.
This makes me both sad and relieved.