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.