Review: The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
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While still as engaging as most rock music out there, fifth album Heaven Is Whenever does lack the sharp inspiration of their greatest triumphs, whether telling of the redemptive piety of Holly in Separation Sunday or the feeling of darting through youth at Sal Paradise's pace in Boys And Girls In America.
As always, it's a pleasure to hear (or even read) the revelry in Craig Finn's lyrics, but a persistent problem throughout HIW is the lack of vivid character sketches we're used to. The sensual, self-destructive cast of Gideon, Holly and Charlemagne have been absent from the Hold Steady oeuvre for some time now, and though their last album Stay Positive plugged the absence with interesting plots of aging beauties, bathroom romances and knife fights, HIW has no great substitutes for the reeling misadventures of the band's old crew. While there is the fun, crashing tale of 'Hurricane J', this snippet of story feels as disposable as the relationship it is documenting (for once, Finn is the target of the unrequited yearning of the titular Jesse, rather than the reverse taking place). And the clairvoyant, indolent woman from their previous single 'Chips Ahoy!' crops up again during 'The Weekenders', but her presence is far less detailed and clear than before. In other words, Jesse and others play bit parts on an album that lacks any real lead.
The frustrating thing is that the few failures here are often close to being great songs- 'The Smidge' has verses with a murderous riff and 'Soft In The Centre' has an exalting chorus, but both stray over their course, and a combination of their best parts may have avoided each song's shortcomings. Things get a little worse in places, as 'Rock Problems' has neither a chorus or verses of note, but that's the lowest point on the record by a fair margin.
Fortunately the successes still sit loftily, indicating that the Hold Steady remain coercive storytellers even if they have lost some steam here (it's probably worth citing the recent departure of their tour de force keyboardist Franz Nicolay as a blow). 'We Can Get Together' is a beautifully soft paean to intimacy by way of a record collection, and the band smartly recalls a shifting rock scene - from rubbing shoulders with violent skins to the receipt of Hare Krishna preaching - during the risky sauntering of 'Barely Breathing'.
Over their career, the Hold Steady have always been slaves to nostalgia; glowingly reminiscing over the girls they never kissed, the gigs they sweated through, the car wrecks they watched pass by at parties, and the occasional nightclub triumph. But they've managed a brilliant trick of imparting sage advice learnt through years at the bar while still sounding like peers to listeners far younger, who are actually living through all their mistakes in the present. It so happens that this time their message is clouded and they sound a little too worn down to stand eye to eye with all the youthful characters of their songs. But this is a band that taught us how a resurrection can feel, and it's unlikely they'll repeat the mild disappointment of Heaven Is Whenever next time.