The Hold Steady-Heaven Is Whenever

2010; Vagrant

So...we have not updated in, officially, a trillion years. You have to trust me that there's actually a good reason, but I heard an album from this year, from a band I liked, and I was like, "I should review this". And now I am. And here we are.

So: Heaven is Whenever. Both the album artwork and the title are complete winners. The music itself...that's a little harder for my brain to come to a consensus on. Mostly because this album is divided into precise halves, the first half being "pretty terrible" and the second half being "excellent". You see the dilemma.

Even if the second half is great, I think that for all intents and purposes this album is a failure. I absolutely see what the Hold Steady were trying to pull off, it just did not work even a little bit. For the first half of the album, they chuck aside all the brass and pianos and go straight standard format rock: Guitar, vocals, bass and drums. And I've gotta say, it's making me reevaluate their previous two albums, which I loved, in a pretty strange light, because without all that other stuff surrounding it, the music almost totally crashes and burns.

Even when the rootsy stuff works, it's flawed. "The Sweet Part of the City" is nice and all, but it feels superfluous. It says nothing that the band hasn't already said a million times before and even if it sounds pretty and thoughtful, it has an air of wilting ideas around it that's hard to shake off. "Soft in the Center" is, once again, a nice sounding, sweet song, but it feels wrong coming from Craig Finn. Even when it brings a smile to your face("You can't kiss every girl, you gotta trust me on this one"), it's uncomfortable to hear fatherly advice coming from the Hold Steady. It's like...you're not my dad, Craig Finn! I listen to you when I want to feel like I'm around people with beer! You are not a role model!

After that, the first half of the album's merits run out entirely. "The Weekenders" and "The Smidge" are absolute retreads of earlier Hold Steady material, except reframed with a "look, we can be hella sensitive too" angle. And it's like, I know you can, I've heard the sensitive songs on your earlier albums. But even those had some push to them, even those had a point to make. This feels aimless, like you're trying to get back to your roots not because you feel like you've lost something but just because you're bored. "Rock Problems" is just utterly embarrassing nonsense, and if there were some decent lyrics to be found I completely ignored them as I tried to pretend that the grinding, generic KISS runoff riff that dominates the song didn't exist and that Craig Finn couldn't have made such a terrible musical choice no matter how much he loves the '70s.

Thankfully, things get demonstrably better as the album reaches its conclusion. "Hurricane J" is a charming, straightforward tale about what it means to be an adult, and it brought back fond memories of earlier Hold Steady excursions without feeling like a Boys and Girls In America b-side. "Barely Breathing" is a disappointed, frustrated account of violence at concerts, and it's one of the few songs on the album that really hits in the gut. "We Can Get Together" demonstrates with expert simplicity the need for parties-"We're good guys, but we can't be good our whole lives"-and "A Slight Discomfort" is a rare display of sincere melancholy from the Hold Steady: No real anger, just sadness, fear and a cautious optimism about trying to stay sincere in a room, and life, full of phonies("They're never funny and they're all so scared to die").

These last songs are all wonderful, and they all show something that the first half of the album distinctly lacked: Real, honest growth and maturity. And I think that the reason for that is because it sounds like they're trying so, so hard to prove that they can sit at the big kid's table for the first 5 songs, and on the last 5 they're simply playing natural extensions of the music they know they're good at. That's the thing about trying to age gracefully: You don't try at it at all, it just happens.

So...I'm torn. I can deftly recommend the second half of the album, but not the first. I want the Hold Steady to grow and change, but I don't want them to lose sight of what made them good in the first place. I want to be blown away by Heaven is Whenever, but I find myself having to settle for being slightly disappointed and mildly hopeful.


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