Heaven Is Whenever: A Review

Craig Finn, lead singer and front man for The Hold Steady, is not a fan of irony. He likes to sing songs with clear, straightforward* narratives about drinking and partying, usually in the Midwest. On the latest Hold Steady album, Heaven Is Whenever (released last week), though, Finn is playing the role of relaxed elder statesman. He’s still dealing with mundane predicaments and inscrutable women, but this record has a more laid-back feel than Stay Positive, Boys and Girls in America, or Separation Sunday. When news came out that the band’s keyboardist, Franz Nicolay, was leaving the band for this album, Finn made some noise by saying it would be “less anthemic” as a result.

*Well, not always straightforward. It’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what’s going on in his songs, but that’s never because he’s being obtuse, but because his songs and albums are so dense with characters and events that keeping track of them all can be slightly confusing.

In actuality, Heaven Is Whenever occupies a weird middle ground between evolution and fidelity: It doesn’t sound that much different from previous Hold Steady albums, but it does sound less anthemic than most. It’s not the kind of polarizing departure that might alienate some fans, but it doesn’t have the same immediate pull that The Hold Steady’s last two albums did.

The change in tone is noticeable right from the beginning. Whereas The Hold Steady’s previous three albums all started with an up-tempo, urgent anthem, which often ended up being among the best songs of the albums (“Hornets! Hornets!,” “Stuck Between Stations,” “Constructive Summer”), Heaven Is Whenever starts off with “The Sweet Part Of The City,” a much slower, more relaxed number. Of course, it’s still about hanging out in the Midwest (specifically Hennepin, MN) and going to the sweet part of the city (which, in case you were wondering, is “the part with the bars and restaurants”), but it doesn’t contain the mundane enthusiasm that we’ve come to expect from The Hold Steady.

Of course, slower often means less chaotic and more confident, which is exactly what “Soft in the Center” sounds like. In this song, which is slightly faster than the opener but still relatively reserved, Finn plays the role of wise sage (“I know what you’re going through / I had to go through that, too”). He is offering advice that he seems to know will be ignored, but that doesn’t really bother him.

“The Weekenders,” one of the early singles from the album (and which was performed on Letterman), is more of a return to form, at least lyrically. Featuring both the casual ambiguity (“There was that whole weird thing with the horses…I don’t think it needs any explaining”) and the wit (“She said the theme of this party is the industrial age. / You came in dressed like a train wreck.”) that have become a trademark of the band, “The Weekenders” calls to mind great songs like “Stuck Between Stations” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.”

Nicolay’s absence feels most noticeable on “The Smidge,” which feels like a song missing a hook or some more piano to anchor the melody. Instead, it feels kind of flat and generic.

Finn’s sense of humor, though, is back on display in “Rock Problems,” which is like a lot of The Hold Steady’s non-singles: It relies perhaps too heavily on a simple guitar hook, but gets by because of the cool lyrics and storytelling. Here Finn is both complaining about his “rock and roll problems” and criticizing himself for complaining about them (“Isn’t this what we wanted? / Some major rock and roll problems.”).

The title of the album comes from “We Can Get Together,” another slow one in the middle of the album. On first listen, I was ready to call this the worst song on the album, but it is actually not bad at all. In fact, on a different album, surrounded by some of The Hold Steady’s more uptempo, epic songs, “We Can Get Together” could actually be a great change-of-pace song.

Or maybe it should just come after “Hurricane J,” the first single from Heaven Is Whenever and the most classically pop-oriented song. It is also the most “anthemic” song on the new album and, probably, the best. Coming earlier in the album, “Hurricane J” would perhaps offset the less urgent feel of the beginning of the album and lend “We Can Get Together” some needed gravity and anticipation. No matter where it is, though, “Hurricane J” is a pretty good single.

“Barely Breathing” is also fairly anthemic, for its part. It starts with a slow, heavy intro before the piano comes in to pick up the melody. Factor in a clarinet, and Finn’s odd, ethereal vocals when singing “The kids are all distracted / The kids are a distraction” towards the end, and this is one of the most intriguing songs on the new album.

A by-product of The Hold Steady’s classic sound is that, when they’re off, they can sound very generic. Like “The Smidge,” “Our Whole Lives” sounds like it is missing something, and doesn’t have the lyrical pull of “Rock Problems.”

The final track, “A Slight Discomfort,” is in the same vein as other Hold Steady closers, like “Southtown Girls” from Boys and Girls in America. It’s the longest song on the album, and more of an atmospheric outro than anything else. Even so, the lyrics contain typical Hold Steady causticity: “And you say you’re a princess / But I remain unconvinced. / I’ve seen the guys that you’ve been with. / They don’t seem much like princes.”

On the whole, Heaven Is Whenever is probably a step backward, but that’s only because we’ve come to expect so much from The Hold Steady, who’ve gotten better, seemingly, with each album up until now. As Finn sings in “Our Whole Lives”: “We’re good guys, but we can’t be good every night.”

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