Hearkening back to that golden musical age when bands still used Roman numerals in their album titles ...
Yes, I still I love The Hold Steady, and at least at this point I'm not wavering in my fanaticism. To be sure, there's an element of calculated hyperbole in Craig Finn's songwriting that is probably intended to appeal not only to rock critics, but also to anyone who actually had a misspent youth, or would like to imagine that they did. It rings a little false and hollow. Quite simply, he plays the "I partied 'til I almost died" trump card a few too many times, and I don't believe him anyway. You did not, Craig. You were flippin' burgers at McDonald's.
But he's such an amazing songwriter, and his bandmates are such unassuming yobs (they'd be content playing for Pabst Blue Ribbon money at the local tavern) that I can't help but love the lot of them. I thought Amanda Petrusich's cover story in the latest issue of Paste really nailed the appeal of the band. Amanda posited a 33-year old with a desk job as the prototypical fan. All I know is that it works at 51 as well. This is the band -- and Boys and Girls in America is the album -- that I foist off on all my Boomer friends who stopped listening to the radio when all that weird punk shit started happening, and who despair that there hasn't been any good music since the debut Boston album. And it's interesting to me that the Boomers hear what they want to hear. Everybody hears Springsteen. And some people hear The Who, and Thin Lizzy and AC/DC. The ones who were still paying attention in the '80s hear The Replacements. And the almost universal reaction is, "I'd still be buying music if I knew there was more stuff like this."
The other factor -- and it's huge for me -- is the appeal of the gutter poet. It's a persona with Craig Finn, I have no doubt -- a role much like The Crazed Madman is for Ozzy Osbourne -- but it's such a mythic part of America and the history of rock 'n roll that I'm almost always glad when somebody dons the mask. There's a noble lineage there that stretches from Rimbaud and Baudelaire to Kerouac to Dylan to Springsteen to Cobain. It's the doomed romantic in a leather jacket, the outsider with a drink in one hand and a pen in the other, scribbling on the bar napkin.
I also think that Finn's songs capture a sense of place very well. It's all in the details, and nobody piles detail upon detail the way Craig Finn does. Sometimes the places are named -- Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Ybor City. Sometimes they're not. But Springsteen's "Backstreets" didn't name its town either, but I've been there all the same. I recognize the scenery. And I do in Craig Finn's songs as well.
Oh, and one more thing ... Craig Finn is my favorite lapsed Catholic. That's a factor that can't be emphasized enough in appreciating his songs. There's self-destruction everywhere in every Hold Steady song, but there's also an underlying sadness, an acknowledgement of the hound of heaven even as these desperate characters do whatever they can to obliterate their consciences. There's also a fair amount of hope; hints of glory shining through the wreckage. Listen to "How a Resurrection Really Feels" from Separation Sunday. It's probably my favorite song from the oughties, or whatever the proper label is for the decade in which we currently find ourselves. I don't know if Craig Finn is a Christian. I have no idea what he believes. But if I could offer a model for how Christians should write songs, that would be it.
"Damn right, I'll rise again."
-- The Hold Steady, "Your Little Hoodrat Friend"