The Hold Steady Sets the Scene

By ERIC R. DANTON

Thrashing Thru the Passion, the latest album from Brooklyn indie-rock band the Hold Steady, begins with a striking description: “He shaved his head at the airport / In a bar at the end of the concourse.” The song is called “Denver Haircut,” and it’s an intriguing enough opening that you can imagine being there at the far end of Concourse C at Denver International Airport, watching some guy with a cordless Wahl clipper and a sense of purpose.

Hold Steady tunes are full of characters who have a sense of purpose, operating in vividly defined places. Singer Craig Finn is a high-verbal smartass as a frontman, but as a lyricist, he’s an innate storyteller with an eye for memorable details. “She hung a sleeveless dress up on a sleeved-up lifestyle,” he sings (or, more accurately, talk-rants) on “Hostile, Mass,” from the band’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me. “Girl, you got to cover that.” But beyond this often dazzling, stylized vernacular, Finn has a knack for quickly and meaningfully sketching a setting with a facile turn of phrase. “Hold Steady at the Comfort Inn / Mick Jagger’s at the Mandarin,” he sings on “Star 18.” In just a few words, Finn offers a meditation on relative success, contrasting cookie-cutter midscale convenience for a workaday band against implausible luxury for one of the biggest rock stars of all time. This ability to lay out scenes loaded with evocative inferences, and rooted in specific locales, is among Finn’s greatest skills as a songwriter, and also his most overlooked.

In a way, that’s understandable: there’s a lot going on in the Hold Steady’s music. Finn writes songs full of shady people at sketchy parties, and his characters often pop up from one album to the next. Though the band’s songs are more conversational and less stylized than concept pieces like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Green Day’s American Idiot, the Hold Steady makes use of recurring motifs in similar ways. There’s a lot about Catholicism, clairvoyance, geography, and a fair number of asides about Led Zeppelin and ’80s hardcore bands, and Finn mentions all of it like you’re an acquaintance who is familiar with the broad outlines of what he’s talking about. “I think I might have mentioned that before,” he says slyly on “Cattle & the Creeping Things,” from the band’s 2005 album Separation Sunday, after paraphrasing a line from the Hold Steady’s previous release. Finn loops a backstory for listeners who are interested, and while knowing it isn’t a prerequisite for listening to the Hold Steady, some knowledge of what has come before makes for a richer experience, like the motor-mouth friend you haven’t seen for a while dropping in some pitch-perfect reference to the old days. In this way, and many others, the Hold Steady’s albums are as literary as they are musical.  

A frequent setting of Hold Steady story-songs is the “scene,” which in the band’s cosmology is a catchall term for a punk-influenced youth culture where sex and drugs are the currency. A lot of people in the scene are focused on getting over at anyone else’s expense, some are just trying to get by relatively unscathed, and a few are searching for deeper meaning. On the band’s early albums, this meaning was usually spirituality, especially Catholicism. More recently, it’s been whatever higher purpose seems meaningful for its own sake. “It doesn’t have to be pure,” Finn sings on “Denver Haircut.” “It doesn’t have to be perfect / It just sort of has to be worth it.”

The religious references, and Finn’s colorful depictions of hard-luck characters navigating the tumult of youth, tend to get most of the attention from critics and fans. That’s understandable, too: Popular music is generally less concerned with place than with moments in time, or states of mind, or both. A huge amount of pop, rock, and country songs are about love, lust, or heartache, often seen in retrospect. There are exceptions, of course, but songs in popular music generally take place in the past tense. Rihanna: “We found love in a hopeless place.” Bryan Adams: “It was the summer of ’69.” Bobbie Gentry: “It was the third of June.” Adele: “Only yesterday was the time of our lives.” Van Morrison: “Hey where did we go / Days when the rains came.” Sometimes there are clues about where the loving or losing has happened—“in the green grass / Behind the stadium,” in Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” for example, or on the Tallahatchie Bridge in Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”—but most of the time it never comes up at all. That’s not to suggest that pop songs can’t successfully convey a sense of setting. It’s just that they usually don’t try—and when they do, the setting is often a generic place-holder, like a church or a bar, that has all the depth of the endlessly repeating scenery scrolling by in the background of old Bugs Bunny cartoons. Those kinds of settings are there for ambience, and little else. That’s because including a detailed location within the confines of a past-tense pop song is nearly always secondary information in the quest to resonate with listeners. Everybody has had a crush, but not everyone has flown through DIA.

In that sense, music is different from other popular art forms. In literature, movies, and television, specificity is often a tool to help the audience understand and relate. In music, too much specificity tends to get in the way. In twenty years as a music journalist, I’ve interviewed countless singers who say they purposely keep their lyrics just vague enough for listeners to overlay their own interpretations, so that whatever the writer had in mind while composing a song, its meaning comes to depend on the ear of the beholder.

Hold Steady songs, by contrast, are highly specific in a way that shifts the music into the territory of short stories. The band has sometimes drawn criticism for focusing on druggy, grubby subject matter that isn’t relatable enough to dudes who like guitar riffs, but that’s missing the point: The sense of fear and futility you get out of reading No Country for Old Men doesn’t depend on your having been stalked across Texas by an implacable psychopathic killer intent on recovering the drug money you happened upon. Finn’s songs are brief stories, flash fiction maybe, with plots full of conflict and drama (and, frequently, mordant wit) that regularly unfold in settings that are an inextricable part of the narrative. What makes the Hold Steady’s music most compelling is how the lyrics transport you to the edge of messy, sometimes startling action as Finn unspools tales that take place in specific, off-kilter scenarios. He tends to set songs in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where he grew up, and New York City, where he started the Hold Steady in 2004 with guitarist Tad Kubler. Together, Finn and Kubler make a potent blend of narrative skill and revved-up guitar riffs that take on a sort of cathartic transcendence, especially in concert. Kubler’s catchy guitar parts propel the songs while also punctuating Finn’s pungent anecdotes, and the result is a taut push-pull tension that enhances the stories while also providing a musical relief valve that manifests as beery fist-pumping.

The stories have grown more intricate over the course of seven albums. The band’s first few LPs focused on the activities of a handful of named characters: Hallelujah (known as Holly), Gideon, and Charlemagne. They’re at the heart of Separation Sunday, which largely takes place in Minneapolis and St. Paul (with forays out west). Like a gritty travelogue through the underbelly of the upper Midwest, the songs refer to a park known for cruising (“Penetration Park,” in Finn’s shorthand), homeless encampments on the banks of the Mississippi River where teenagers score drugs, a spot beneath a railroad bridge where teens gather to drink (the “Party Pit”), and, in the song “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” an Easter mass.

Finn names and then zeroes in on particular neighborhoods, or even houses, which serves as the lyrical equivalent of an establishing shot in a movie. This helps to situate the listener, and also characterizes locations through shorthand: he doesn’t need to spell out what happens in a place called Penetration Park. It’s implicit, just like a fleeting reference on “Star 18” to “Hemingway on the Ketchum porch,” where the writer shot himself in 1961, alludes to what happened without piling on the ghoulish details.

Sometimes the sense of place comes from the ancillary details. In “Massive Nights,” from the 2006 album Boys and Girls in America, Finn never mentions the word “prom,” or describes the décor in the room, but it’s clear that’s what he’s talking about. “The dance floor was crowded, the bathrooms were worse / We kissed in your car and we drank from your purse,” he sings. “I had my mouth on her nose / When the chaperone said that we were dancing too close.”

Other songs treat location in more detail. “Southtown Girls” gives directions to a shopping mall where some illicit exchange is planned: “Meet me right in front of the Rainbow Foods / I got a brown paper bag and black buckle shoes,” Finn sings. “Sequestered in Memphis,” from 2008’s Stay Positive, recounts a one-night stand that began in the bathroom at a bar and continued “some place where she cat-sits,” told from the perspective of a guy from out of town now being questioned by the police, for reasons that are never explained. Finn also frequently mentions kitchens, which serve as places of refuge where the people in his songs regroup, make plans, or take stock. What makes his settings more than background scenery is how his characters interact with their surroundings in a way that pulls in listeners, too. The tepid banality of a suburban shopping mall contrasts with the drug deal that’s about to go down, while the comforting familiarity of a kitchen will resonate if you’ve ever retreated to one while feeling out of place at a party. Instead of debating ideas with the “inspiring people / You can hang in the kitchen / Talk about the stars and the upcoming sequel,” Finn sings on “You Can Make Him Like You.”

Finn narrates the band’s early albums as an omniscient, frequently animated bystander, the kind who waves his arms around to emphasize parts of the story (which, in fact, he often does onstage). You feel like you’re standing there with him, maybe at one of those sketchy parties, while he’s recounting what happened, and sometimes inserting himself into the narrative: “I heard Gideon saw you in Denver—he said you were contagious,” from “Cattle & the Creeping Things,” or insisting, “But I wasn’t even at that party,” from “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night,” also on Separation Sunday. When you catch the reference, whether it’s to a previous lyric or someone else’s song or the significance of a location, you feel like he’s tipped you a knowing wink without breaking his narrative stride. The effect is akin to noticing a certain detail or portent early in a novel that later turns out to be important, or at least recurrent—indie-rock foreshadowing in a way, which is uncommon in music for the simple reason that most songs on most albums aren’t part of a story arc.

More recent releases have been less specific about who in favor of what: anonymous characters who shave their heads at airports, try to get their bearings in motel rooms, or meticulously plan drug heists that go badly wrong (“Take a flight to Durango / Take a car to La Quinta / Chevrolet Silverado / Sort of south of the entrance / Drive it down to Las Cruces,” Finn instructs on “The Stove & the Toaster,” from Thrashing Thru the Passion). The past few albums are narrated from the first-person perspective of a character immersed in what’s happening, as opposed to his earlier role relaying what he heard or saw. It makes for less continuity between songs, in that it’s not as clear how the stories or characters are connected, but his descriptions are no less vivid—and just as effective at putting you in the picture, though it means Thrashing Thru the Passion, for example, is more akin to a series of vignettes than the novella-like approach to storytelling on the band’s earlier material.

Finn brings the same level of place-based detail to his music outside the band. “God in Chicago,” the centerpiece of his 2017 solo album We All Want the Same Things, is a masterwork of scene-setting as the first-person narrator recounts helping a dead friend’s sister wrap up his affairs by way of a road trip from St. Paul to Chicago. With deft lyrical strokes, Finn describes the sister’s request for help, the “Chevrolet that didn’t have any radio” they travel in (which is a location in its own right), a furtive transaction near the airport, and a spontaneous decision to see the sights when they’ve finished their business. Over a spare, sad piano part, Finn talk-sings: “We got a room at the Hyatt / Michigan Avenue I can still picture you / We each got a toothbrush from Walgreens / We drank in the taverns, we ate somewhere Italian.”

The song is less than five minutes long, with a wealth of imagery and emotion, and everything the characters are doing is so tied to a location that you could plot it on a map. More importantly, you can picture it: the lights on Michigan Avenue turning blurry after stops in a few taverns, two people becoming familiar, and then intimate, through the lens of tragedy, the rueful aftermath that is inevitable, but no less crushing. It’s not pure, it’s not perfect, but being drawn so artfully into such an absorbing story sure is worth it.

 

Eric R. Danton writes about music and pop culture. His work has appeared in publications including Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Pitchfork, Paste, Fortune, and Salon.

 

The Hold Steady Sets the Scene

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