Monday, October 16, 2006

The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America

Let’s dispense with the preliminaries: The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America is quite possibly the best album of 2006. It’s an impossibly outsized combination of beat poetry and power chords, raging, literate rock ‘n roll from yet another New Dylan (as if we really needed a new one) in a leather jacket. It is epic in every sense, loud and brash, celebratory and angry, and it contains a fully realized world of idiosyncratic characters thrown together willy-nilly and trying to make sense of their desperate couplings. It is the sound of loneliness in a crowd. And it is Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run thirty years down the two-lane highway, and not only because lead singer/songwriter Craig Finn’s voice bears an uncanny resemblance to the Springsteen of the mid-1970s. It’s about time somebody grabbed for the brass ring – great lyrics combined with white-hot rock ‘n roll – and Finn latches on with both hands.

So why can’t I love this album? I don’t know, but I can’t. For all their musical and lyrical similarities, Springsteen’s dead-end characters longed to bust out, get the hell out of Dodge, make a better (or at least different) life for themselves. Finn’s characters are content to sit stoned in front of the television set, or aimlessly wander the suburban shopping mall until the next party starts. And maybe that’s the difference.

But give credit where it’s due. It’s one hell of a shrug of resignation:

There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together
Sucking off each other at the demonstrations
Making sure their makeup’s straight
Crushing one another with colossal expectations
Dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late

That’s from a song called “Stuck Between Stations,” and it’s the best opening verse of an opening track I’ve heard since “Thunder Road.” It obliquely references Kerouac’s On the Road even as it sets the stage for songs about kids who can’t even bother to get out of their home towns. The irony is delicious. The guitars kick in at Line 3 and pin your ears back, more Pete Townshend or Angus Young than Broooooce, but if the power chords don’t immediately call to mind this album’s historical predecessors, then the perfect Roy Bittan piano interlude will. This is Born to Run but louder, more intense, more desperate. Except nobody’s running.

But they’re surely having a great time standing still. “Chips Ahoy” is the story of a young woman who bets $900 on a horse race, wins her bet, and spends her winnings getting high and engaging in round after round of compulsive sex:

She’s hard on the heart
She’s soft to the touch
She gets migraine headaches
When she does it too much
She always does it too much

Then there’s “First Night,” “Party Pit,” “Massive Nights,” “Citrus,” and “Chillout Tent,” two ballads and three raging rockers that are about, respectively, drugs, drugs, drugs, drinking, and drugs.

You may be picking up on a theme here.

So let me cut to the chase. Tipper Gore wouldn’t understand, but this is the kind of album you should buy for your teenaged kids. It makes a great Christmas present, moms and dads. The fun and games turn into something else entirely very quickly, and if you’re looking for proof, look no further than “Hot Soft Light,” certainly one of the best, most startling, and most rocking songs about addiction ever committed to recorded media. It is a first-rate cautionary tale of doing drugs until they start doing you:

It started recreational
It ended kinda medical
It came on hot and soft
And then it tightened up its tentacles

And therein lies the unresolvable conundrum of Boys and Girls in America, the tragedy of understanding the hollowness at the heart of the bright and shimmering dream, but not understanding that there is an alternative. This is a fantastic album with a huge sound. It’s brilliantly written. It rocks like crazy. But it skirts the big themes, and it settles for a kingdom the size of a pill, which turns out to be no answer at all. The town’s still full of losers, and it will still rip the bones from your back, but nobody’s pulling out of there to win. All the boys and girls in America are too wasted to drive.


C's Mom said...

Damn, Andy can you WRITE! I read your blog about music I've never even heard and you pull me *right there*

The best compliment I have (even though it reveals a bit too much about me): your writing makes me sick-jealous. But in a good way. Wow.


Andy Whitman said...

From an ongoing dialogue on the Arts and Faith forum:


Josh Hurst wrote:

Andy, I really appreciate your interpretation of this album. Even this brief exchange has heightened my appreciation for this record's complexity.

I guess a big part of my disagreement comes from the fact that I'm not on board with your interpretation of Springsteen. You say there's a lot more hope in his songs. I think a lot of folks would say that. But I've never found his songs to be too optimistic. Usually, his definition of hope involves skipping town, getting out on the open road and leaving your problems far behind. Only, I've been there, and it doesn't work. With characters as messed up as Springsteen's and Finn's, I don't think leavng town is the answer. The problems are only going to follow these poor souls.

I hear a lot of defiance in Springsteen's songs, but in Finn's I hear something more akin to brokenness. And that probably won't come across as optimistic to many people, but I think it's the first and most crucial step toward healing. I don't think Finn is being sarcastic when he sings that he finds hope in the lost souls collected in the barroom and the taverns, and the fact that Holly is unhinged and uncontrollable is what grounds her Christian profession in reality, at least to my ears. I think a lot of these characters are at the end of their rope... and I think that's precisely what makes the album optimistic.

But again, I think your take on the album makes total sense. And I'm ever so glad that you love the album. If you haven't already, go back and listen to their first two albums; they're great as well.

And I responded:

I'll certainly do that.

You know, it's a pleasure to encounter an album that is so meaty and substantial. Most albums don't warrant an extended discussion of the lyrics, or the overarching themes. This one does. So, from that standpoint alone, I'm thrilled to have heard it. As a nice little bonus, it's also great rock 'n roll.

The Springsteen comparisons are there for several reasons, in my opinion. Finn's voice is almost indistinguishable from Springsteen's voice in the mid-'70s, and some of his phrasing seems consciously patterned after Springsteen. For example, listen to the "clicks and hisses" verse at the end of "Stuck Between Stations," then listen to "Rosalita" from "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle." The Hold Steady's keyboard player obviously worships at the shrine of St. Roy Bittan. And both Finn and the early Springsteen aspire to the kind of gutter poetry that finds beauty (and some extraordinary imagery) in the mud and vomit. "Boys and Girls in America" is an English major's dream.

But, for me, Finn is at a disadvantage here. Granted, it's a highly skewed comparison. I've only heard one Hold Steady album, whereas I'm familiar with 30+ years and 20+ albums of Springsteen's music. So I don't know what I'm missing from Craig Finn, nor can I possibly project what he'll do in the future. But based on what I know, Springsteen wins the songwriting comparison. Sure, some of his most famous songs concern hitting the open road and driving away from your problems. But that's only a small part of the bigger picture. He has songs about getting married and settling down and finding peace and meaning in the mudane ("The Ties That Bind"). He has songs about finding hope in the midst of tragedy (most of the songs from "The Rising"). He has songs about, God help me, joy, something I wouldn't expect to encounter in a poet of the gutter:

Well now all that's sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin' in our bed
Tonight let's lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we'll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures of the Lord
It's been a long long drought baby
Tonight the rain's pourin' down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God's mercy
I found living proof

This doesn't look like escape to me, and it seems far more balanced and healthy than what Finn is offering.

I absolutely agree with you that a recognition of brokenness is the first and necessary step toward healing. That's pretty biblical, I'd say, and it forms the cornerstone of the Sermon on the Mount. And yes, there's brokenness aplenty in Craig Finn's songs. But sometimes people at the end of their ropes simply run out of rope, and that's the end. There's no healing. And that's the place that most of Craig Finn's characters appear to inhabit. You see some glimmers of hope there, which is fine. I wish I saw more of them. That's all. There's a myth in rock 'n roll -- the whole "It's better to burn out than to fade away" romantic sufferer shtick -- that I've grown increasingly weary of. And maybe I'm reacting to some of that in Finn's music. Here's the truth: it's not better to burn out. It's better to live. There's no glory in an early, tragic death. I think it's great that Finn wants to write about desperate characters. But I also hope that he finds the hope, the maturity, whatever it is -- to bring them back from the edge of the abyss. I've spent some time there, and it's no place to live, or die.

So that probably informs part of my reaction to this album. I really like it. I've been talking about it for days, ever since I first heard it. So I appreciate the opportunity to spout off. I'm just trying to explain a little more clearly why I react the way I do.

Anonymous said...

Many years ago, before Born to Run came out, I pulled out of there to win. I had a lot of company. It's sad to think that that impulse is not there in today's typical American youth. I'll check out the album, but I can tell already that I won't like it as much as I love my old Springsteen albums (as opposed to his newer ones, by the way).

Andy Whitman said...

Bill, it's the perceived satisfaction with less-than-satisfactory lives that keeps me from going absolutely nuts over this album.

Still, it's a great album, full of wonderful songwriting and wonderful rock 'n roll. I'd bet you'd like it a lot. It's the difference between, say, a 5-star album and a 4.5 star album. I'd say it's a 4.5 star album that is still very, very worthwhile.