The Hold Steady: The Body and Blood
For Teeth Dreams, Kubler and the band recorded versions of several of the tracks before Finn—who was busy touring behind his solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes—had even heard them.
“When [Finn] came back to the band, I really wanted to try to come up with songs that inspired him,” says Kubler. “There’s a tremendous amount of trust there. We don’t really talk about the creative process a lot, in terms of what we both bring to the band. It just exists. I really wanted to surprise him almost or inspire him—both for myself and for the band.”
Finn was definitely inspired by what the group had done, but the new sound—heavier and more dense with “the push and pull of two guitars”—created challenges for the lyricist as well.
“This record was different. Usually, the music comes first, but also usually, I’m around while it’s created,” says Finn. This time, seven songs were nearly completed and fully fledged before Finn stepped in. “We changed ‘em around when we all got together. But they were more realized than anything on other records. In that sense, I think the music influenced the lyrics.”
The music nudged Finn. It was beefier and more thoroughly crosshatched. At first, he wasn’t sure where his voice would fit in, or if he could find space for himself. “I said, ‘Why don’t I think about that claustrophobia?’”
A repeated line from “The Only Thing,” a steady chugging track off the new record, goes: “For a while, I couldn’t breathe.” The song anchors some of the album’s themes.
“I started thinking about anxiety and whether we live in anxious times,” says Finn.
Finn says that he meditated on a particularly American kind of anguish—the stress that comes with always trying to acquire material possessions or be on top (“Waking up with that American sadness,” as he sings on “On With the Business”). The hustlers and searchers in Hold Steady songs don’t realize that their boozing and spiritual yearning might express a desire to escape from something bigger than boredom.
“I keep thinking about people trying to screw people over, getting ahead by hook or by crook,” says Finn.
Fear and anxiety, dark dreams and broken hearts populate Teeth Dreams, and there are numerous mentions of blood and a sense of looming assault as well. The opening track, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” conjures skinheads and other unsavory types caught up in some kind of paranoid, doomsday bunker scenario. On the otherwise funny “Big Cig”—a tune about appreciating a woman who smokes silly-looking 120s, the big cig of the title—Finn howls out that “we all have our anxieties,” just before Kubler launches into a heroic solo of Ace Frehley proportions.
Teeth Dreams wraps up with the brooding “Oaks,” a nine-minute epic filled with premonitions and visions. It’s on par with other Hold Steady monoliths like “First Night” off Boys and Girls in America or the near-perfect, soaring “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” from 2008’s Stay Positive. But “Oaks” is tailored for the end of a record— a haunting multi-part construction with a narcotized waltz conclusion and a cascading guitar part that points the whole song toward the sky. For the music, Kubler says that he had a specific goal in mind.
In hashing out the demo, he says he was “trying to figure out how to construct a song that gave you the impression of loss,” says Kubler.
That sense of loss, for Kubler, related to losing friends to drugs.
“I’ve had conversations with people, where when they say, ‘See you later,’ I say, ‘I know that’s going to be the last time I see that person,’” says Kubler. “I wanted to try to come up with something that had the feel of that sense of dread.”
The Hold Steady’s songs have always involved stories about getting wasted, life’s excesses and all types of loss. This isn’t Bon Jovi or Journey, where everything generally ends up all right. Although, plenty of the riffs are arena-ready.
“I write a lot about drugs and alcohol and partying,” says Finn, who is 42. “When you’re 25, it’s pretty awesome to drink beer and smoke weed and go crazy with your friends and wake up and try to go through a day at work. That’s just American. But when you’re 35, some people are stopping doing that because they have family or a job, but some people are still doing it—maybe they can’t stop. The behavior that used to be awesome is suddenly not that awesome.”
The invulnerability of youth gives way to something else, and impaired judgment, coupled with the effects of time, can make for startling new perspectives.
“You realize some of us are going to go down. Some are going to sort of not make it—maybe not die, but not make it as we expected to,” adds Finn.
Those realities are partly why The Hold Steady are celebrating 10 years as a band, and still making meaningful music. If there’s ample loss and suffering in Hold Steady songs, then there’s also mystical rebirth, ecstatic communion, visions of saints, salvation and deliverance. It’s not all death and anxiety and parking lots. Finn’s Catholic worldview still comes through pretty strong in the songs. Other songwriters trot out dime store theology, but you get the sense that Finn could hold his own talking catechism with seminary students. And, beyond the notion of religion, Finn says that he tries to make room for episodes of the paranormal—tele- kinesis and clairvoyance—in his songwriting. It’s a strange aspect of The Hold Steady’s numbers that elevates them out of their other- wise rigorously mundane settings and details.
“It’s important to me to do that because I think that growing up...there were always these rumors you heard, something that was an unknown,” says Finn. “I want to sometimes tap into this sort of magic.”