“Certain songs, they get so scratched into our souls,” Craig Finn yawped on the Hold Steady’s “Almost Killed Me.” As if to prove the point, the band followed that stellar debut with the positively epic “Separation Sunday,” a record teeming with stories of depravity and love, sin and redemption It wasn’t an album, it was a Proverb with garage licks. Their new record, “Boys and Girls in America,” out on Tuesday, is improbably even better. This seems almost unfair to other bands, because at this point no one’s keeping up, but no one’s going to complain as long as Finn keeps at his scratching.
While “Separation Sunday” fit into a reasonably tight narrative structure, following the dissolution and ultimate grace of a hood-rat named Hallelujah forced to navigate the riverbanks and party pits populated by pushers named Charlemagne, “Boys and Girls” is more impressionistic. A reference to a line in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together,” laments narrator Sal Paradise), the record is a bit like the book: not as much a coherent story as a collection of unutterably beautiful moments. While former Finn creations Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon pop up here and there (here being a hospital bed, there being a street corner), there’s no story here, no specific one, anyway.
There is the American story, of course, the one about being young and free and fucked up, but never beyond hope. Like the Replacements reading the Book of Revelation, Finn’s gift is in finding religious significance in the most inappropriate of places, in gleaning the sacred in the wasted by scraping through the profane. “I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers,” he says on “Citrus,” and you desperately want to feel Jesus, too, whether you believe or not, just because it’s so damn heartbreaking when he then says “Lost in fog and love and faithless fear I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere,” and you don’t want to believe that that’s all there is.
If this all sounds terribly literary and self aware, that’s because it is. “Some great writing, when you start to pay attention, has a rhythm and a meter, just like vocals do,” Finn says. “That said, I think it influences me in the content, and rock and roll singers influence me in the delivery.” From someone as comfortable talking about John Updike and Saul Bellow as he is about Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, this observation comes across as a defense of rock music as an artform, and that’s intentional. “I think rock and roll has always been unfairly maligned” Finn says. “It’s not all cigarettes and black leather jackets. For me, growing up, it was a very positive place for me; rock and roll was a very positive thing for me as a kid. I’m excited that people are able to treat it that way. As an art form, rock and roll is the only thing you can’t really go to graduate school for now.”
The Hold Steady should help the rock and roll academic’s cause. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s crying keyboard lines wrap themselves around Tad Kubler’s classic rock riffs and your mind, while Finn barks his lines like the next one might save your life. The entire band operates as one, the incarnation of the union between a jukebox and a library, and Kubler says it’s no accident.
“When we’re done in the studio and we take a break for a while, nobody wants to go home,” he says, the excitement about returning to the road registering in his voice. We could be out for six weeks on tour, we come home, we’ll load back into our rehearsal space, and somebody’ll be like ‘I’m gonna grab a six-pack and hang out for a little bit.’ You know, nobody wants the party to end.”
This is not to say that the band embraces the excesses of the holy fools they chronicle – Kubler has a wife and child, and the most revved-up Finn gets is when I talk about Twins rookie sensation Francisco Liriano’s aborted return to the lineup that day. There’s significance in this, too, though, so don’t be disappointed that I’m not regaling you with tales of deviant sex and thousand-dollar-a-day habits. No, something as simple as Finn’s affinity for Minnesota Twins says a lot about the Hold Steady.
Both Kubler and Finn were in Minneapolis scene legends Lifter Puller, but when the group disbanded in 2000, they both found their way to New York, where they formed the Hold Steady and still live. Just don’t call them New Yorkers.
“Craig gets really irritated with people who move to New York and all of the sudden being a New Yorker becomes part of their identity,” Kubler explains. “When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t say the West Village, I say Wisconsin.”
At a label showcase last fall at legendary New York venue CBGB, Finn reveled in ridiculing the hometown Yankees. He seems to identify quite a bit with the overachieving, hard-luck Twins, a franchise that puts its teams together wisely and frugally, but often ends up on the losing end of things in a league where the Yankees and Red Sox can outspend everyone. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the symbolic implications are staggering. This quintessentially Midwestern outsider attitude, along with a loose Catholicism, has perhaps served as the forge that formed the uniqueness of the band’s aesthetic. Think Bright Eyes, or better yet, think F. Scott Fitzgerald. If they keep making records like “Boys and Girls in America,” Finn and crew might just join the golden-haired spokesman of the old Lost Generation as the new spokesmen for ours.
The Hold Steady will play Ottobar in Baltimore on Monday, Oct. 2, their last show before the release of “Boys and Girls in America” on Tuesday, Oct. 3.