At some point, Craig Finn will have to grow up. He’s spent his entire time with the Hold Steady writing from the perspective of a bemused, love-swollen, somewhat alcoholic youth, and he’s done it well, capturing the aspirations and emotions of the uniquely American teenage experience better than anyone. But the truth is, Finn is 38 years old and leads a comfortable life, touring with a modestly successful rock band; 2008’s Stay Positive made some references to maturity, but it was a subtheme at best.
Heaven Is Whenever is the first record from the Hold Steady sans Franz Nicolay, the iconic, mustachioed keyboard player whose energetic stage presence and old-school keyboard-spilling style has been the most immediately noticeable thing about the band for years. Upon leaving, he said, “They have their one big idea—making literate, wordy lyrics over big anthemic rock—and the last two records were about as good as I felt like I could do with that idea.” And he might have been right: Heaven lacks the cohesiveness or unifying thread that defined albums like Separation Sunday and Stay Positive, but by and large, thanks to good songwriting, it still works.
Finn is still writing about young people, of course, and the songs that most overtly court that demographic tend to be the weakest. The awkward, power-poppy “Hurricane J” and the scummy, bar-rock jangle “The Smidge” don’t carry the same emotional weight as the rest of the Hold Steady’s catalogue. These are stories—like one about a 22-year-old waitress struggling with alcohol, drugs, no-good men—that have been told before. On the other hand, a song like “We Can Get Together,” about two youngsters going through a record collection, is much more honest, believable, and genuinely touching: “Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Lock your bedroom door/And listen to your records.” The song stops being about kids and starts being for them.
Surprisingly, Heaven is also the Hold Steady’s most sonically diverse album to date. Unlike previous albums, which exploded with an immediate onslaught of careening guitars, opening track “The Sweet Part of the City” is a slow, country-fried, mostly acoustic affair, far from the band’s anthemic roots. “Barely Breathing” is an almost vaudeville-ish guitar-led two-step that finds Finn almost scatting. These aren’t the band’s strongest songs, but they’re definitely some of their most interesting. The Hold Steady is under transformation; like Nicolay, who’s now pursuing an incredibly divergent, vaudevillian one-man show, it doesn’t seem like the rest of the band is content with simply putting “wordy lyrics over big anthemic rock” anymore.