Guest blog by Curator contributor Rob Hays.
From time to time, out of the blue, you tune in to a favorite tv show, only to be surprised by a curveball: the Very Special Episode. What was once a light-hearted sitcom has elected to take on an important issue like addiction or abuse, and rather than the half-hour of chuckles that you expected, you instead endure earnest over-acting and an out-of-character lecture from the stars after the credits roll.
Other shows wouldn’t dare stoop to pander like the Very Specials, but they do send curveballs at their audiences, too. This takes the form of the episodes where main characters are unexpectedly transplanted to a very different context (Star Trek: The Next Generation created the holodeck just to allow for such puffery), or main characters are ignored altogether so that peripheral players can have some time in the spotlight. These episodes can sometimes be entertaining, but particularly when they take place on shows that feature an ongoing, season-long arc, they can feel like an interruption or distraction.
The Hold Steady, born in Minnesota and raised in Gotham, have sent their audience a similar curveball on their most recent release, Heaven Is Whenever. Across their first four albums, songwriter Craig Finn and the band created a detailed culture, documenting the fall and redemption of characters on the fringe of Midwestern society, drawn together by a shared allegiance to the underground music scene. The characters are starkly drawn, growing and developing across the first four albums: there’s Holly, the former “hoodrat” and junkie who clings to a strong Catholic faith; Charlemagne, a schluby small-time dealer who gets in way over his head; and Gideon, a violent skinhead whose braggadocio outpaces his actual street cred.
The action is seen through the eyes of Finn’s narrator, sometimes omniscient, sometimes hopelessly enmeshed in the story himself. As their fourth album, Stay Positive, drew to a close, the band took a self-aware look at their history in songs like the title track and “Slapped Actress”, in which they imagine the characters’ leap to the big screen. Throughout this penultimate album, there is a distinct feeling that the band had arrived, and were basking (to a certain extent) in a level of fame that they’d only hoped for in St. Paul.
In light of that benediction at the end of Stay Positive, it makes more sense that they would leave the familiar characters behind on Heaven Is Whenever. Having sent them off to the lands of closure and stability, Finn is ready to explore a new generation. While previous albums had featured him getting high and almost killed in pursuit of a unified scene, his narrator strikes more of an older brother/mentor pose on Heaven Is Whenever. Speaking to arrivistes, he demands, “Where were you when the blood spilled?” before counseling them that “no one wins at violent shows.” He’s there to maintain the hard-earned peace.
Amid the party stories and Catholic imagery, an over-arching theme of salvation through a sanctified, unified scene has weighed heavily on The Hold Steady’s music. From the first track on their first album until now, they’ve put forth the view that music, love and unity are a path to salvation. Their characters strove for this vision in some way or another, and having arrived there in Stay Positive, they can be assumed to be enjoying their eternal reward as Heaven Is Whenever kicks off.
Beyond the songwriting, The Hold Steady has evolved musically as well; keyboardist Franz Nicolay and his waxed mustache left to pursue a solo career, forcing the band to lean heavier on a guitar-driven sound. Their music still tilts heavily toward grandiose bar rock, but the reduced personnel has allowed other member of the band to assert themselves. I’ve never particularly noticed the drumming on one of their albums before, but Heaven Is Whenever is easily their most rhythmic album, bringing some less-than-traditional time signatures into the mix. Having ascended to a larger, more popular stage of their career, the music has soared to reach the backs of the arenas that they now tour.
The more I’ve listened to the new album, the more it feels like a logical next step forward, rather than a sidestep or distraction. Just as other artists like Johnny Cash and the Coen Brothers evolved as they aged, leaving behind the madcap tendencies but never forgetting them completely, The Hold Steady’s recurring characters may have been phased out for good, but they’ll live on under the surface of everything that comes next. It’s not just a Very Special Episode, it’s a whole new series.