Earlier this year I reviewed Craig Finn‘s second solo album, the thoughtful, poetic I Need a New War. That collection found Finn fleshing out his eloquent stories with lusher arrangements and a retro swing. Now back with his original bandmates in The Hold Steady, and having added two more members to power up their sound, Finn has returned to pure rock n’ roll spirit on Thrashing Thru the Passion.
Off the bat, the group goes into straight barroom rock with the raucous “Denver Haircut”. Aside from the piano during the bridge, the song remains an energetic guitar rave-up start to finish. While the narrative yarn is hard to follow, the track still contains a number of Finn lyrical nuggets (“The stench of death in the credits. The montage set to the time of your life”) as well as a couple Metallica references. “Epaulets” also hits you right out the door with a good-time saloon vibe, with the wild R&B piano fitting in well with the protagonist’s kooky love interest, who wears an “Ocelot coat” and cries because “the cotton looks like clouds”.
Musically, the addition of two new members has given The Hold Steady an extra kick, rounding out their sound with brass and extra accoutrements on their songs. In interviews, the band have said they wanted to have fun writing as a group again, and that spirit clearly comes through. One only has to hear the 80’s cock-rock opening to “T-Shirt Tux”, and you may think you accidentally threw on a Thin Lizzy track. Or check out “Entitlement Crew”, a quirky song about a salesman pining over a lost love, which blows down the doors on the rock-out ending.
Finn’s lyrics are often specific to a fault, making it hard to decipher the meaning behind his observational narratives, but on tracks like “Blackout Sam”, the details demand your attention. As Finn regales us about a local legend, possibly an alcoholic reporter, he parses out fragments of information, slowly bringing us in until he hits us with “He was a friend of mine, I hope it didn’t hurt. Cried when he died but tonight it felt worse” and we realize the track is a memorial. It’s a powerful punch to the gut that requires multiple listens to soak it in.
While the tracks on this album aren’t as catchy or easy singalongs as the most memorable cuts on Stuck Between Stations or Stay Positive, there are still plenty of hooks to go around, whether it’s the shout-it-out “You Did Good Kid”, or The Clash riffs and power pop melodies of closer “Confusion in the Marketplace”, which kills with lines like “I don’t want to dick around. I just want to devastate.” The Hold Steady remain a band that can play to a wide berth of people; the jock enjoying a third beer on a rowdy night out, or the English major searching for poetic inspiration while diving deep into an album. Thankfully, the group continues to hold steady with the balance between these two worlds in their songs.
The album drops on August 16th, but you can check out a few of the previously released tracks below:
“You Did Good Kid”