RATE HEAVEN IS WHENEVER:
The first 38 seconds of The Hold Steady's latest album make you believe, just for a bit, that the band has changed their sound up, created something new and different. An acoustic guitar kicks off the song with a bit of a western, country kick to it, cleanly shifting into a guitar slide and cymbal crash reminiscent of Hazards of Love. But pretty quickly, lead singer Craig Finn enters the song with his typical poetic, nasal delivery, the traditional piano chords trickle in (albeit not played by former keyboardist Franz Nicolay), and "The Sweet Part of the City" becomes very much a typical Hold Steady song. So does the catchy, rock ballad, "ooo"-filled "Soft in the Center." So does rocker "The Weekenders." And I don't mind one bit.
You see, the only criticism people ever find in The Hold Steady is that they are reluctant to change their sound. They are often taken shots at for taking the easy road, effortlessly crunching out records full of fist-pumping, hard-rocking anthems. But what's wrong with that? With a band as consistent as The Hold Steady, it's hard to find much fault at all. Yes, it's consistency that has kept the band so loved in the music world, and although Finn and company have tried out some new sounds on Heaven Is Whenever, they keep churning out the talk-singy, power-chord jams that they always have - just not with quite as much of a success rate as on previous albums.
Part of what has kept the band's formula from becoming too stale (especially on their masterpiece, Boys and Girls in America) is their willingness to match their harder-rockers with heart. Piano and soft, ballad-like choruses have become a Hold Steady mainstay; mostly because Finn has become a much better singer from his Separation Sunday days. "You can't get every girl," he sings sweetly on "Soft in the Center." "You get the ones you love the best." "The Weekenders," which begins with a building drum pound and arena-ready U2 guitars, also features some nice vocals from the frontman to start, but even when Finn reverts back to his talkier chorus, the band is there behind him with incredible "woahs" to take the song over the top.
Often, however, the band's songs are too easy, too formulaic. Former keyboardist Franz Nicolay's absence, as well, has clearly impacted the band, as the songs have a noticeable lack of Springteen flair and grandeur at points. "The Smidge," with it's cowbell, wailing guitars and whiny vocals, is a throwaway track that might have worked on an old-school Hold Steady album, but not at a point in the band's mature, pop-based phase. "Barely Breathing" is also weaker, unoriginal and too reliant on a just decent guitar riff and a clarinet cameo. " "We Can Get Together" sounds relatively forced and cutesy, mostly because the song just doesn't match up with previous Hold Steady ballads "First Night" or "Lord I'm Discouraged."
But tracks like "Hurricane J" remind you why this band is so great. It's pounding chorus - "I don't want this to stop, I want you to know, I don't want you to settle, I want you to go" - is meant for crowd sing-alongs, and Finn's trademark storytelling is vintage Hold Steady. "Our Whole Lives" bangs along and still remembers to sprinkle the piano we know and love throughout (although it runs the risk of sounding too much like "Constructive Summer"). "Lives" even features some hand-claps and an awesome, saxophone-led bridge at the end. And the band takes a big risk on "A Slight Discomfort," a 7 minute epic that builds for slightly too long, but when it gets there (about 3 minutes in), it's fantastic. In a lushly orchestrated, repetition-for-effect jam, Finn keeps reminding us that "this won't hurt, but you might feel a slight discomfort."
However ambitious and bold, "Discomfort," the album's closer, is not definitive of Heaven Is Whenever as a whole. More representative of the album is "Rock Problems," very much in the typical Hold Steady guitar riff-verse-chorus-verse-chorus style. Sure, it's good, very good even, with a steady guitar groove and a solid chorus. But it's just good; nothing special. The fact of the matter is, while The Hold Steady consistently demonstrates that they can make new, different music ("Sweet Part of the City," "Slight Discomfort"), they don't really want to. They'd prefer to crank out the 3-minute rockers they always do. And when those tracks sound as good as "Hurricane J," "Weekenders," and "Our Whole Lives," it's hard to care. The Hold Steady is no longer looking to expand their sound or top year-end lists (as they did with Boys and Girls). The band is now strictly in the business of crafting consistent, solid rock gems. A few weak tracks won't prevent Heaven Is Whenever from being one of the year's most enjoyed albums, by Hold Steady die-hards and casual music fans alike.
80 — Excellent. One of best offerings of the year, but may only appeal to fans of that genre. [Rating Scale]