The Hold Steady, ‘Stay Positive’ (Vagrant)
By lovingly invigorating E Street–flavored bar-band rock with electrifying wit and believable punk energy, the Hold Steady stumbled on something surprisingly original. But on the band’s fourth album, the classic-rock signifiers that once served as a jumping-off point for fresh hybrids are untouched by that irresistible sense of restless urgency. The Hold Steady are mellowing, and it doesn’t really suit them.
Since when do these guys write power ballads? “Lord, I’m Discouraged” wheezes with a lighter-begging chorus and a guitar solo straight out of Use Your Illusion — it’s not a cheekily updated homage, either. To borrow a phrase from lead barker Craig Finn (who loves borrowing phrases from himself): This is sketchy metal. Thankfully, Stay Positive captures enough of the old Hold Steady pixie dust — equal parts suburban drug abuse, random sex, and the majestic power of rock’n’roll herself. “Constructive Summer” is the sort of people-powered anthem that made them 2005’s can’t-miss band, and the title track meshes Finn’s superspecific lyrics (“Youth of Today and early 7 Seconds taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons”) with echoes of Randy Newman’s”I Love L.A.”
Still, this is the first Hold Steady disc that misses almost as often as it hits: “Certain songs,” Finn once sang, “get so scratched into our souls.” In the past, he could be relied upon to deliver more than a handful per album.