Album Review: The Hold Steady “Heaven is Whenever”

07/13/2010

By William Clarke

There are many reasons I love The Hold Steady. Their music has always felt vaguely familiar and affirming to me. Beyond my own connections to Minnesota that ensure a degree of shared references with Craig Finn, I also lived for the kind of life that he has made career out of describing in such rich detail. Finn’s lyrics convey a sort of rueful, unromantic nostalgia. He rarely sentimentalizes. Oftentimes his lyrics seem startlingly matter of fact, as if Finn is resigned to these events as they happened without moralizing. This mentality really shapes the narrative drive of his songwriting. Indeed, rather than missing any of these particular moments, many of which sound miserable, we sense Finn’s own latent and, in many ways, indeterminate melancholy.

As I suggested earlier, I connect deeply to these sentiments but after a few listens I found that Heaven is Whenever fell a bit flat. Finn insisted that the record was about “trying to age gracefully.” That idea is pretty evident at points, such as when he sings “God only knows it’s not always a positive thing. To see a few seconds into the future” on “The Weekenders.” This phrase arrives after he repeatedly insists earlier, “he remembers.” The anxiety has in large part to do with the sort of vexed position of someone in his late 30s.

Certainly the enduring childishness of your late teens and early twenties leads to a sort of wistful remorse or remembrance as one belatedly enters adulthood. That tension has always been at the heart of Finn’s songwriting and though some elements more explicitly related to aging might be more obvious, Heaven is Whenever is not a real departure from The Hold Steady of old. At points some songs sound like B-sides from previous records, for better or worse. In some ways this is totally okay.

The Hold Steady have a great sound that has worked very well on their previous records but given that this is their fifth album they run the risk of sounding stale. I found the too long and overly grand “A Slight Discomfort” to be a particularly disappointing end to the album. Slightly different stories from Finn don’t signal a shift in direction for the band and the musical formula ought to be tweaked. The record feels like a transition piece. One I will gladly listen to, if not out of mere loyalty because they are still a damn good band. Heaven is Whenever isn’t quite a full step in a different, fruitful direction but given The Hold Steady’s body of work, I think it’s a safe bet they will get there.