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The Hold Steady Reboot Their Sad-Bastard Rock Moves on ‘Teeth Dreams’

The Hold Steady / Photo by Danny Clinch
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 24, 2014
Label: Washington Square

Craig Finn’s the kind of rock and roller who references W.B. Yeats and John Berryman because he’s dog-eared their paperbacks, not just because he likes the way the syllables roll off his tongue. So when Finn named an entire Hold Steady album after Jack Kerouac’s On the Road soliloquy about boys and girls in America having such sad times together, you could tell he held the line in high esteem, enough to pit it against the foreboding presence of Berryman the Confessional Poet, who takes the plunge off Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge midway through “Stuck Between Stations.” Finn’s a smart reader: he knows Kerouac’s literary reputation wilts before that of Berryman’s. Yet Kerouac got the pull-quote while Berryman merely symbolized artistic exhaustion in the face of “colossal expectations.” Finn’s always preferred tales of pensive youth to snapshots of depressive adulthood.

Boys and girls in America grow up, though, and eight years later Finn is still contemplating their sadness. If once Finn highlighted the way cool kissers and good dancers moved along the subcultural margins, the new Hold Steady album Teeth Dreams considers blood-stained carpets and muddy mattresses — all the lonely people “waking up with that American sadness.” These aren’t bad vibes you shake off with a make-out session inside the chillout tent: Finn’s considering the despair that comes from dead-end jobs and decades of hard living, recreational depressants very much included. There’s a literary backstory here — after all, one thing Berryman and Kerouac had in common was alcoholism. But there’s also longtime guitarist Tad Kubler quitting drink after an alcohol-related pancreatitis diagnosis, and Finn plowing through David Foster Wallace’s behemoth treatise on addiction, Infinite Jest. We’re talking heavy stuff. As the opening track goes, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You.”

Teeth Dreams positions itself as a comeback effort of sorts for the Hold Steady, who stumbled with 2010’s transitional Heaven Is Whenever. Whereas that album never quite figured out what to do with the empty space left by departed keyboardist Franz Nicolay, Teeth Dreams finds our heroes a fully committed twin-guitar band (“rolling without keys,” Finn says). To this end, they’ve hooked up with producer Nick Raskulinecz, best known for his work with Foo Fighters and Rush. It’s a slightly cramped arena-rock adjustment for these bar-band malcontents — longtime fans may crinkle their noses when Kubler and new axman Steve Selvidge channel Moving Pictures-era Alex Lifeson between choruses on “Runner’s High.” But if the Steady still haven’t come to grips with Nicolay’s absence — those rare keyboard washes are way too tasteful — the beefed-up and heavily-processed guitars also bring to mind clear 1980s progenitors R.E.M. (“The Only Thing” jangles and claws through the kudzu), the Replacements of Tim (“Almost Everything” recalls Paul Westerberg at his most 12-string melancholic) and major label Hüsker Dü.

The Hüsker stuff is pretty overt, even for this band: while 2010’s “We Can Get Together” remains the loveliest ode to the Dü on record, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” marks the Hold Steady’s clearest sonic homage to the Minneapolis trio’s roar. But all choruses and melodies have been pumped up, and Finn’s adjusted his vocals accordingly. This is no longer Craig the Haranguer, bellowing out each verse like Bruce Springsteen telling Rosie about the record company’s big advance — sometimes he practically croons.

All this musical facility throws an additional development into sharp relief: Finn’s no longer spinning the kinds of shaggy dog stories he made his reputation with. This is no oversight, but rather a deliberate attempt to blur narrative specificity in order to allow listeners an easier path inside his songs. The problem is that most listeners can’t hope to boast Finn’s descriptive gifts or creative imagination, leaving the majority of these sketches just that — sketches. This means Finn doesn’t add any new characters to a rogue’s gallery that once challenged Becker/Fagen in linguistic delight (fans surely recall such previous Hold Steady song inhabitants as Nightclub Dwight, Salminio, Special K, Charlemagne, and Drop Dead Fred) or the kinds of inter-album allusions that suggested Balzac’s Human Comedy drenched in Michelob. And our greatest Catholic storyteller since Flannery O’Connor (who else you got — J.F. Powers?) avoids overt references to the church, aside from one suspicious type with an upside-down cross carved into his forearm.

But grant these songs a little patience and some space, and stories emerge. Two people meet cute at a benefit (“it was a pretty big opening”). Nights of “salted rims and frosted mugs” get complicated. Somebody goes to Houston and feels “absolutely nothin’.” A Waffle House waitress asks some hoodrats if they’re Pink Floyd. Indie lifers compare notes (“for me, it was mostly the music”). A relationship ends with the cosmic shrug “I’ve served my purpose.” A guy admits he’s said “a couple of things that probably aren’t technically true.”

I know what you’re thinking. Separation Sunday was overflowing with things that probably weren’t technically true, which is what people loved about it. And there’s no way these new reflections on emotional manipulation and spiritual exhaustion will thrill listeners the way getting dusted in the dark up in Penetration Park once did. But this band has never shied away from acknowledging the ravages of time — they knew staying 33 forever was as impossible as staying 17 forever. Beneath the arena-friendly sonics and the streamlined storytelling of Teeth Dreams lies the same old band that kicked off their very first number with a little bit of Mott The Hoople self-mythology, that fist-pumping Hold! Steady! chant within “Positive Jam.” Everything’s just subtler now, buried within the chorus of the closing nine-minute Crazy Horse dirge “Oaks”: “Keep the speed steady / hold the wheel straight.” You can almost hear Finn belting out the chorus to Mott’s “All The Way From Memphis”: “It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll.”