The Hold Steady: The Body and Blood
Throughout The Hold Steady’s songs, certain settings, details and phrases are also repeated, echoed and twisted around on multiple tunes. Those include, “the camps along the banks of the Mississippi River,” “Penetration Park,” “the Party Pit,” lovers being tethered together, guys recalling the ‘80s, characters who admit that what they’re saying is only partly true and socks stuffed with people’s drugs. One thing’s virtually certain: There are more parking lots in Hold Steady songs than in any other group’s songs.
The themes of self-destruction and salvation, drug-induced oblivion and grace are threaded throughout. Bloody violence and paranormal visions abound as well. As Finn sings on “Spinners,” off the new record, “There might be a fight/ there might be a miracle.” That ambiguity is key: Fervent rock and roll and partying can serve as stand-ins for religious devotion, but are they adequate substitutes? In The Hold Steady songs, the answer is “Maybe” or “For a time.”
But those ideas are teased out incrementally, among numerous personalities, over a half-dozen albums. It’s long-form storytelling set in the compressed short-form world of the rock song. And somehow, it doesn’t unwind into a tangled mess. Deploying a partier’s vernacular, Finn’s songs create a contemporary American universe—one that spills out from the Twin Cities and headwaters of the Mississippi River and on to shitty prairie towns, to colleges in the Northeast, to fern bars and party stores to strip clubs in Ybor City and to weird spots in the woods where university students get wasted with townies. It’s its own beer-soaked Yoknapatawpha County of power chords and heroic guitar solos.
Finn may be wisely making the trail of lyrical bread crumbs more difficult to follow on the new record and its predecessor, 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever, by dropping fewer blatant references to names from older songs, loosening the narrative net a little and introducing new characters who may reappear in future tunes. But even if you ignore the characters, Hold Steady tunes are made for detail-fixated music buffs. The songs exist in a world that makes sense to itself by referencing rock and punk and pop history or trivia, or just by name- dropping. Finn isn’t shy about folding in literary references as well. And he’s said that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest had a lot to do with some of the themes on the new record.
To many, The Hold Steady represent the culture of Minneapolis and St. Paul—and of the Midwest in general. They’re the music-nerd’s Lake Wobegon. It’s a surprise to some that the band formed in Brooklyn. And though they’ve been living in New York City for more than 10 years, you won’t find any songs about the L train or the Lower East Side. “Craig is almost obsessed with making sure that he’s not pretending to be something or somebody that he’s not,” says Kubler. “He’s really self-aware. I think he’s always wanted to make sure that he’s writing from a place or a voice that he knows.”
Finn sees the subject of New York as almost being off limits, at least for now. “I’m scared to write about New York,” he says. “I feel like that’s Lou Reed’s territory. I still feel like I’m visiting New York.”
Prior to forming The Hold Steady, Kubler and Finn drew on their insights into the Twin Cities while playing in the Minneapolis- based Lifter Puller—a band that featured Finn’s signature literary- tinged storytelling style but with a more abrasive, lumbering ‘90s sound. When Lifter Puller broke up in 2000, Finn moved to
New York. Kubler relocated to Los Angeles, and then back to Minneapolis, joining, recording and touring Europe with another group. Kubler and Finn stayed in touch and talked often, but it was an opportunity to make music for the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe in New York that really brought them back together. At first, it was classic tunes by Cheap Trick, AC/DC and David Bowie. But they also wrote a song for the show and, based on that re-sparked chemistry, the two decided to form a new band.
“I flew back to Minneapolis. I packed a bag, I grabbed guitars and I never went home,” says Kubler.
The band quickly earned a reputation for its relentless touring and its ecstatic shows. Plus, there was a steady amount of song- writing and recording after The Hold Steady formed in 2004. By 2006, the band’s third studio album, Boys and Girls in America, was named record of the year by The Onion’s AV Club.
The Hold Steady equation is one that balances the Springsteen- esque of-the-people mythology in Finn’s lyrics with just the right flourish of muscle-car, rock-and-roll bombast tempered with a punk-ish rambunctiousness in Kubler’s riffs, the band’s dramatic stops and its epic choruses. This is a band that is as steeped in Joe Walsh, Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy as they are in the Replacements and Husker Du.
Teeth Dreams is both a departure and a continuation of The Hold Steady sound. It’s a big rock record. But it’s also got a more dynamic range—subtle dips in volume and force—than any of their previous albums. As with the band’s last album, 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever, Finn steered clear of established characters from older Hold Steady songs. And this is the first album recorded with guitarist Steve Selvidge, who joined the band in 2011, following the departure of longtime Hold Steady keyboardist Franz Nicolay. For the first time, the group worked with producer Nick Raskulinecz, who previously presided over Foo Fighters sessions. His emotionally candid appearance in the Sound City documentary caught Kubler’s attention. If Finn obsesses over singing about things that feel authentic, then the band prizes honesty and truth as exalted and slippery as those may seem.
A story about how they ended up pairing with Raskulinecz is revealing. As Kubler tells it, Raskulinecz hadn’t heard The Hold Steady’s music before they began discussions about working together, which is something many prospective producers, eager to click with future collaborators, wouldn’t acknowledge.
“One of the first things [Raskulinecz] said was: ‘I’ve heard of you guys, but I’ve never really heard your band before,’” says Kubler. “I thought, ‘This is perfect.’ To me, that was an indication of several things—the biggest one being he’s not someone whose going to bullshit me. Here’s someone who I can really trust to be totally honest, no matter how uncomfortable it will be.”