Album Review: Heaven Is Whenever by The Hold Steady
Great, Based on 16 Critics
Entertainment Weekly - 86 Based on rating A-
From the opening Dobro to the closing nature sounds, the Hold Steady’s fifth album Heaven is Whenever is full of mature serenity. Don’t freak out — America’s greatest bar band still rocks. But Craig Finn is singing now, not just spitting literate slam poetry, and Tad Kubler’s massive arena riffs command attention instead of giggling at their own audacity.
The Hold Steady's fifth studio album flips the beaten-but-not-broken optimism of 2007's Stay Positive for a more reflective Zen trip. Or, in vocalist/guitarist Craig Finn's words, "embracing suffering and understanding its place in a joyful life." Though there is no one theme to the record, one constant is a weary narrative voice sharing sage observations and advice. Sure, the stories are still painful and the riffs still bruising.
The Hold Steady has traded in their rain-slick streets of Springsteen idolatry in favor of more sonic variety on Heaven is Whenever. They do what they do (rock) and that’s for sure—but now, pop dirges shimmering with aquatic light and rusty slide guitars have snuck in and made themselves at home. Craig Finn’s lyrics house the crass beauty of a worn-down dweller of the turning century, making this album a movie I’d pay 10 bucks to see.
The fifth Hold Steady album loses departing flamboyant keyboardist Franz Nicolay and replaces anthemic, fist-pumping choruses with a more reflective, thoughtful sound. Craig Finn is storytelling less and waxing nostalgic more, often casting himself as an elder statesman: "I know what you're going through, I went through it, too." While they can still pull off a stupendous rocker like the brass-tinged Our Whole Lives, Hurricane J and The Smidge suggest the band's well of chugging riffs and guitar solos will eventually run dry. However, this transitional album indicates there is more in their locker.
The wonder years The Hold Steady’s great gift used to be the ability to transform adolescence into something that holds within its unbearable awkwardness the irreplaceable magic of discovery. But on its magnificent fifth album, the band has finally grown up a little, and singer/narrator Craig Finn sounds like a spectator in the grandstands, taking in the game and issuing casual advice to the kids on field: “You can’t kiss every girl,” he sings with near-fatherly earnestness on “Soft in the Center. ” The songs, meanwhile, sound bigger than before, his bandmates compensating for the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay by installing bayou guitars (“The Sweet Part of the City”), Dixieland breakdowns (“Barely Breathing”) and—all together now—more cowbell (“The Smidge”).
After the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, it seemed almost inevitable that the Hold Steady would return to the dollar pitcher fueled, bar-rock stomp of Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. Instead, the freshly made quartet branched out in a slightly different direction for their fifth album, Heaven Is Whenever. Rather than writing another hard rocking novella, the album feels more like the soundtrack to a lonely Midwestern road trip, making it more of a road-weary version of Boys and Girls in America than a re-creation of their earlier work.
Their style is instantly recognisable... Their style is instantly recognisable, their continued quality almost taken for granted, but there are some notable differences about this, The Hold Steady’s fifth album. Their first recorded without keyboardist / multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay, ‘Heaven Is Whenever’ is a more guitar-led, rockier record than their breakthrough ‘Boys and Girls in America’ and 08’s ‘Stay Positive’.
At some point, Craig Finn will have to grow up. He’s spent his entire time with the Hold Steady writing from the perspective of a bemused, love-swollen, somewhat alcoholic youth, and he’s done it well, capturing the aspirations and emotions of the uniquely American teenage experience better than anyone. But the truth is, Finn is 38 years old and leads a comfortable life, touring with a modestly successful rock band; 2008’s Stay Positive made some references to maturity, but it was a subtheme at best.
The Hold Steady's latest album begins with "The Sweet Part of the City", a number about kids meeting up under theater marquees, drinking until they run out of booze, partying till the cops come, listening to music all night, and making runs for more liquor. The song is quintessential Craig Finn, especially when he reveals a twist ending in the final lines: "We were bored so we started a band," he admits. "We'd like to play for you." The line comes across like a stinging punchline, sad and self-aware: Kids start bands to tell their stories, yet their stories are often the same.
You should have seen them there, on the front lines. While the rest of the crowd surged forward to get their hands on Blur and Beatles singles, Hold Steady die-hards raced towards the desk at Rough Trade East on Record Store day. Ready to climb over their fellow man to get to the album fastest, there was an audible groan as the scant handful of copies of the new long player found their way to greedy palms and were gone.
The more you listen to Heaven Is Whenever, the more something becomes clear: the Hold Steady’s sound has been running on a timeline. There was the snarling infancy of Almost Killed Me, the ragged teenage years of Separation Sunday, the self-destructive young adulthood of Boys and Girls in America, and then the reluctant maturity of Stay Positive. It was the same personality all the way through, the same sound at the core, but emotions and perspective were subtly shifting, even as the vocabulary stayed the same.
Who would have thought that a handlebar 'stache would be so sorely missed? In all seriousness, the owner of said moustache—The Hold Steady's keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay—was an integral part in writing the critical darlings' success story. On the one-two punch of 2005's Separation Sunday and 2006's Boys and Girls in America, he effortlessly threaded his piano lines through Craig Finn's gruff ruminations on a drugged-up American Dream. Tad Kubler's electric guitar blared through the speakers and all was well.
There are very few bands out there that are as divisive as The Hold Steady. To devoted fans, they’re a band that is profusely loved (I know a friend that is planning to attend all of their shows in the LA area [three shows in three nights] right around their album release) by some and they’re a band that is vehemently disliked by others. But what’s most puzzling is that very few – on either side – seem to understand what the other side is hearing.
“Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Lock your bedroom door/And listen to your records” Here’s an opening statement for you. Craig Finn is arguably the best lyricist of the 2000s. Of course, the key word in that claim is “arguably,” like the type of argument you would have with friends over a beer or two with each one of you espousing about your favorite songwriter from Springsteen to Dylan to McCartney—each one of you sure you were right and adding piece after piece of evidence in the form of selected couplets that really tell it how it is, man, and, you know, really get at the human condition.
Blissfully at odds with the compression-heavy world of modern rock. Andrzej Lukowski 2010 Despite only coming to public attention comparatively recently, Brooklyn rockers The Hold Steady have essentially bypassed the up-and-coming portion of their career, leapfrogging straight to the elder statesmen phase. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most salient one is the band’s unabashed classicism.
The Hold Steady perfects the rock & roll edge that doesn't actually cut, a sound embedded in enough classic rock to be instantly recognizable while evoking youthful restlessness more nostalgically celebratory than wanton. In other words, the now-Brooklyn quartet (minus Franz Nicolay on keyboards) has always been more mature than its sentiments and safe in the execution of Craig Finn's vocal catharsis. While fifth disc Heaven Is Whenever doesn't break formula, it proves slightly more temperate and introspective without compromising big riffs.