If a first album introduces you, and a second album potentially breaks you, then your third album will most likely come to define you. In the game of rock n’ roll it’s startling how often this scenario pans out. From Born to Run to Loveless and everywhere in between, a band’s junior year effort will often solidify their place in the glossy pages of rock or banish their memory to a sunday afternoon infomercial.
After being introduced to the indie world via Almost Killed Me as a bar band with a penchant for pop culture riffing and geographical hop scotch, Brooklyn’s best band The Hold Steady returned a mere year later with Separation Sunday, the conceptual companion piece to any teenage runaway who yearns to remember what is was to feel good and bleeds for their salvation. Sunday raised the bar (rimshot!) and all but extinguished the name-dropping nature of their debut album while cranking up the volume on the bottom-shelf-soaked sound. And when the band headed into the studio to begin work on their third album in just under three years, it was unsure whether they were comfortable being the heir apparent to a forgotten but just as raucous bar scene, or if they reveled in the label of a drugged-up classic rock revival. Turns out it is neither. Turns out they wanted more.
What the Hold Steady achieve on Boys and Girls in America is nothing short of tremendous, as track by track they accentuate the aspects of their sound that attracted us to them in the past and manage to dig deeper, exposing new techniques and skeletons that stay around long after last call.
“Stuck Between Stations,” from its palm-muted opening to its larger than death ending, starts out in Minneapolis and ends in the Mississippi River as a tribute to late poet John Berryman, who committed suicide in 1972 by throwing himself from a bridge. The parallels between Berryman and the band itself are palpable as both achieved massive amounts of critical praise, while Berryman managed to stay off required reading lists and thus far THS remain foreign to the Billboard charts.
Aware of their mortality The Hold Steady trudges from the graveyard to the racetrack in “Chips Ahoy,” a story of drug lust and numb love as our protagonist pleads with his clairvoyant girlfriend (“how am I supposed to know that you’re high if you won’t let me touch you / how am I supposed to know that you’re high if you won’t even dance?“) as Franz Nicolay and Tad Kubler add a chorus of necessary “whoas” and “ohs.”
“Hot Soft Light” takes a punchy but elastic guitar riff to interrogative heights as our suspect confesses to authorities (“I was not involved up at the Northtown Mall / As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know that that’s where it happened / I was passed out when they came out dancing / I was Lyndale South, I was kickin’ it with cousins / we were talkin’ about goin’ clubbin’ / but instead we just started drinkin’.“) Another poignant postcard from the seedy streets of the Twin Cities.
Perhaps the most surprising and satisfying track comes from “First Night” a piano ballad sure to have saline staining your pint glass and flicked flames raised high. Resident hoodrats Gideon, Charlemagne and Hallelujah are laid to rest in susurrus, eulogized by the memories of first highs and fast nights and discomforted by the fact that it can never be that good again. Throughout the album, Finn pushes the theme not of a specific set of characters and their suspect motives, but a universal series of events that could occur to any number of people on either coastline. And as the pyre is set out to sea, the chant of “boys and girls in america” resounds triumphant and Mr. Finn assures you this is as much your album as it is theirs.
From there “Massive Nights” rides a hip rocking bass line that struts as fast as it walks to a high school dance of decadence and bathroom debauchery. The acoustic track “Citrus” highlights both Kubler’s fingerpicking style and Finn’s verse with the bastardly genius gambit “Lost in fog and love and faithless fear, I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.” “Chillout Tent” overdoses on naivety, love and the moment with backing vocals from Dave Pirner and lines like “She looked just like a baby bird, all new and wet and shy and tryin’ to light a Parliament / He quoted her some poetry—he was Tennyson in denim and sheepskin / He looked a lot like Izzy Stradlin / They started kissin’ when the nurses took off their IVs / It was kinda sexy, but it was kinda creepy / Their mouths were fizzy with the cherry cola / They had the privacy of bedsheets, and all the other kids were mostly in comas.” Bringing home the effort is “Southtown Girls” a song that takes us back to where we began, Minneapolis, and pays homage to the ones who ain’t the beauties but you know that they’re alright. And that’s all right with us.
With its expansive musical range and knack for sacramental yet secular storytelling there is little hesitation in calling Boys And Girls in America the defining moment of the Hold Steady’s short yet already impressive career. Lord only knows where these five glazed over characters will wake up next. It probably doesn’t matter, as long as they keep the stories rolling.
Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
Counting Crows – August and Everything After
The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me