If Heaven is Whenever were the first Hold Steady album you ever heard, you’d probably consider it a pretty great rock record. The bar band swagger, monster riffs and cleverly poignant lyrics that make the Hold Steady the Hold Steady are all there, and in a few places they’re as sharp as ever. The trouble is, the band’s got four other albums full of similar stuff, and for the first time it’s starting to sound like the beer-soaked rock and roll lifestyle is catching up with them. It’s telling that two of the album’s best tracks, “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J” consider the party’s aftermath and how to move on from it.
As a group of guys who’ve been around and seen it all, writing songs about characters (and largely for an audience) that are younger and still enthralled by “the scene,” the Hold Steady have always walked a delicate line. They play rousing classic rock with the kind of poetic recklessness that only a true believer can, but always with a wary eye on the lonesome desperation that turns fandom into passion, especially when it comes to rock and roll. On previous outings like the lapsed Catholic odyssey Separation Sunday, and the Kerouac-influenced Boys and Girls in America, they struck the perfect balance.
Things got a little darker on 2008’s Stay Positive, but while the album may have played up sinister side of townie parties, the band generally withheld judgment. Sometimes those parties get druggie and then they get ugly, but we can always pray to St. Joe Strummer when the going gets rough.
On Heaven is Whenever, singer Craig Finn appears to take his characters to task for their indulgences in a way we haven’t seen before. “Twenty-two and banging ’round in restaurants / Isn’t that much prettier than banging around in bars. / And why do you keep going to his car?” he asks Jessie, the stuck-in-a-rut waitress whose nickname gives “Hurricane J” its title. Finn doesn’t want Jessie to settle he wants her to grow. Somehow this involves making out with her in a car even though he “don’t think (he’s) the guy.” It’s hard not to smell a patriarchal tone in this song from which the Hold Steady used to be gleefully free.
Always possessing a spiritual side, Finn is transfixed by heaven in all its forms on Heaven is Whenever, from band names and singles with different takes on paradise, to the perfect peace of sitting on a bedroom floor listening to records. One view of utopia that comes up more than once here is the idea that it’s the place you go next. This is especially intriguing when you consider the album’s opening track, “The Sweet Part of the City,” a slide guitar and lap steel-laden ode that takes the Hold Steady’s sound to new places. While not a terrific song, it’s hard not to imagine the band just wanting to try something new (and jar its listeners) especially when the riff of the second song, “Soft in the Center” sounds so borrowed from the band’s previous work.
That’s the letdown of Heaven is Whenever, though I hate to use the word “letdown.” Because it’s not like this album isn’t fun to listen to. Finn strikes lyrical gold several times on the album’s haunting third track “The Weekenders,” with lines like “She said, ‘The theme of this party’s the industrial age / And you came in dressed like a train wreck.‘” “Barely Breathing” is a darkly comic song with an offbeat guitar stroke about the indecision one feels when the scene is changing, and it might be for better than for worse. Yet, while The Hold Steady have mined familiar territory over four albums and it never felt stale, Heaven is Whenever shows the first signs of crust. “We can Get Together” is a lovely song, but it’s hard to listen to without thinking of “First Night” off Boys and Girls in America. “Our Whole Lives” mixes big guitars and beautiful piano, but it reminded me most of an older Finn lyric: “I’m pretty sure we’ve heard this one before.”
What’s interesting is the band seems to know it. “I just can’t sympathize with your rock and roll problems / Isn’t this what we wanted? / Some major rock and roll problems,” Finn sings on “Rock Problems.” It’s a song about the alienation and freedom that both come with being in a touring rock back, and the title is voiced by a girl who can’t understand why Finn won’t just shut up and have a good time. It’s a wink to both complaining rock stars, and the band’s own fans that can’t fathom why the best bar band in America might be getting tired of bars.
This isn’t to say there’s much reason to worry that the band might be on the verge of packing it in. “The Sweet Part of the City,” the song that kicks off Heaven is Whenever ends with Finn repeating a lullaby to everyone who’s loved listening to the Hold Steady – and importantly, seeing them live – for the better part of this decade: “We like to play for you,” Finn assures. “We like to play for you.”