The Hold Steady’s 10th anniversary show in February at the Abbey Bar in Harrisburg, Pa. ended abruptly when someone jumped onstage and tried to steal the microphone from lead singer Craig Finn. It wasn’t the last song on the setlist, but the band, in disarray, walked offstage.
It was a crude, kind of sad ending to an uplifting night. But it was also a glimpse into an authentic rock n’ roll moment. There was an element of danger: anything could happen. The show could end at any moment. And it did.
Like audacious guitarist Tad Kubler, who brings substance abuse, Thin Lizzy guitar solos and the well-fortified feasibility of a fight after the show, Finn has made a calculated decision: maybe it’s better to be the band that doesn’t finish their set every night.
The band’s latest record, Teeth Dreams, sees a return to the powerful, risky guitar-driven rock they are so well known for. It was a sound missing from their last effort, 2010’s Heaven is Whenever.
The first four Hold Steady records captivate because they sound like novels on tape. There are crowded descriptions with vivid and dramatic characters.
These characters seep through to every record and create a lengthy testimony to sin and salvation, to life that is bigger than a song, album or the band. These characters are familiar friends — their dispositions, history and vices Hold Steady die-hards are well acquainted with.
But 2010’s Heaven is Whenever began to stray from the unique sound they had carved for themselves 11 years ago in the New York City indie rock scene. These tracks felt like flimsy attempts at pop songs, with only half references to the stories fans wanted to hear. Gone was Finn’s patented talk-sing aesthetic of dense storytelling.
The first cut off Teeth Dreams, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” feels like a return to their permanently precarious edge. Even the lyrics suggest a sort of comeback.
Finn describes bringing a girl back to his hometown and introducing her to old friends — punks, Twin Cities tough guys and seedy types that permeate Hold Steady songs of the past. “These guys I know, we go back pretty deep…most of them are dead and some of them don’t even live here anymore.”
Finn has refocused his thoughts back to the upper Midwest, which has always been crucial to the band’s charm. Songs written for mass appeal are vague and trite. I’d rather listen to Finn singing about his hometown and crossing “that grain belt bridge into bright new Minneapolis.”
The appeal of The Hold Steady is their unapologetic faithfulness to being real, made obvious by the way Finn writes songs about the people he knows, from the places he comes from.
The next track “Spinners,” is catchy but haunting. It introduces a theme of devastation, sadness and ultimately perseverance that carries throughout the album: “heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off.” Finn is confronting harsh truths of adulthood that he thought might never come, “nights go on forever now, but the morning comes so quick,” the sobering truth that you can’t be 17 forever, massive nights end and little hoodrat friends eventually grow up.
“The Only Thing” looks back at the reckless years, “this town was so much fun when there weren’t so much police. We didn’t have to watch our speed.” The song offers closure to 2008’s “Sequestered in Memphis” through a message of healing and reconciliation: “I’ve been trying to get in touch with her, last night her teeth were in my dreams.”
Having dreams about teeth falling out speaks to anxiety and stress over personal appearance. In “On With The Business,” Finn reveals possible reasons for those dreams, “Chemistry, currency, plastic and magic. Everybody, rise, we’re an American business,” Finn whales over intricate guitar parts. The song is both loud and somber. “Great expectations. LA Fitness. So many choices, decisions, decisions.” At its core, the song is a critique of capitalism and the ways in which Finn’s uniquely American characters are ill with a uniquely American sadness — one they only know how to temporarily cure with more booze and more stuff. “Blood on the carpet, blood on the mattress, waking up with that American sadness.”
Midway through the album, despair has sunken in and the rest is left for advice, self-analysis and how to grieve.
With Teeth Dreams, the band grapples with problems that mirror those in their personal life: Finn’s divorce and Kubler’s drug use and pancreatitis.
Partying has caught up to both the band and the characters they’ve created. This album is a logical progression for the band. It’s difficult to make every song a positive jam in the face of disaster, tragedy and personal shortcomings.
The last song “Oaks” is the longest in the band’s catalogue. It’s almost a synopsis of the entire album. It begins bitterly poignant. There’s eloquent guitar playing from Kubler and Steve Aldridge who trade long, down tempo solos that simmer underneath each other. Toward the middle, Finn sings with some assurance “And we hope…and we dream….and we hope.” The end trails off into a fading, distorted guitar reminiscent of Dinosaur Jr.
Even on an album where all signs point to an apocalyptic end, we get some affirmation that indeed, things will all be okay — that not all our dreams have to be teeth dreams.
The Hold Steady have always found a way to elevate the lives of those that most people deem unimportant. They dignify the lowest, most ordinary class of people that most of us find ourselves in. Teeth Dreams shows there is still so much joy in what they do.