You can almost picture Skippers, the stripmall bar that serves as the setting for “Carlos Is Crying,” off the Hold Steady’s ninth album. The place is packed with cubicle drones sharing pitchers of beer and guzzling glasses of box wine, everybody letting off steam on a weeknight. That’s where poor Carlos finally breaks down sobbing. As Craig Finn relates the story, the guy hasn’t been to his job in weeks, even though he tells his wife he’s earning a steady paycheck. This is not how he expected his life to turn out: “We started as skaters,” he reminds his friends at the table. “Man, we used to glide/We used to hang like the smoke.” The Hold Steady chime in with some sympathetic harmonica and a bouncing-ball guitar lick, until Carlos admits, “Now every conversation I have is about money.”
This is how the Hold Steady’s characters age. They used to skate, party, take drugs, give themselves tattoos with ballpoint pens, make up clever nicknames, finger their rosaries, and chase salvation “into dark parts of big Midwestern cities.” Now they work unspectacular jobs, scrape to pay mortgages, and tell the same old stories about the past as Finn measures the crushing distance between adolescent dreams and adult realities. But this is not the way the Hold Steady ages. In their best songs the scene was always better a month or a year ago, the bands always heavier, the drugs harder. They traffic in the tragicomedy of lowered expectations, and they’ve yet to lapse into self-parody because Finn is always generous with the details and the Hold Steady are always ready with a dramatic guitar lick. They never condescend to any of the dreamers still clutching at their old dreams.
Rather than ignore the flatline trajectory of adulthood, Finn first embraced it on his solo albums, and he has examined it more determinedly with the Hold Steady over the past few years. More than anything else—including their 2016 reunion with keyboardist Franz Nicolay—this untapped thematic territory gave the band a boost after two disappointing records. The Price of Progress is full of second winds and unlikely comebacks, with Finn’s characters finally reaching a point where they can move forward again. On opener “Grand Junction,” a frayed couple drift through the West, searching for a destination and almost getting there by the final verse. The song evokes a very particular American vista, with the guitars counting the white lines down the highway and the synths hitting a crack in the windshield. It’s less a travelogue than a 21st-century landscape painting where “all the mountains were mocking our own little pitiful lives.”
Finn subtly expands the stage and stakes on the album’s second half without taking his eyes off his characters, who travel without really going anywhere. “The Birdwatchers,” an epic with music-box keyboards and minor-key tension, follows a couple traipsing through an unnamed country and looking for thrills that can’t be found in their guidebooks. Maybe it’s the same country in “Distortions of Faith,” a woozy waltz about a desperate musician who accepts millions to perform for a dictator. Despite some murky production by Josh Kaufman of the Fruit Bats and Bonny Light Horseman, the Hold Steady turn these songs into weird, vivid snapshots, always looking for new ways to soundtrack Finn’s globetrotting tales, whether that means the ’70s spy motif that adds a wink to “Understudies” or what sounds like an ’80s TV theme that casts “Perdido” as a strange period piece.
These are songs about desperation with no direction, alienation with no reconciliation, isolation in a crowded bar—a hunger for something that can’t be found on the laminated Skippers menu. That’s another way to say that the Hold Steady have lived up to their name: By slyly tweaking their musical palette and by expanding their familiar milieu, they’ve managed to thrive at a time when even high-functioning rock bands are having too many conversations about money. They’re adaptable, much like the protagonist of “Sideways Skull,” a woman who keeps her band going while living in a recovery clinic. Finn crams in so many amazing details about her world: the blood capsule in her mouth, the glam-rock top hat, the “jacket held together by the rock band patches.” It’s funny, but it’s not a joke. Instead, it’s a rousing anthem, an unabashedly positive jam. The Hold Steady are sincerely rooting for this artist who finds it “hard to fully rock in a halfway house.” They get you to root for her, too. “The trick is not getting cynical,” Finn barks, which sounds like the soundest and most adult wisdom they could pass along.
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