Hold Steady: Heaven is Whenever Review
The fork has long been in the road as far as the Hold Steady go. From the moment the group rose from the ashes of Lifter Puller and drunkenly serenaded the world with …Almost Killed Me, people have been arguing the genius/idiot bar band debate ad nauseam. As a disclaimer, I am an ardent supporter of the former argument, although my faith has been shaken slightly with their last album, Stay Positive, and I am not convinced that their newest album, Heaven is Whenever, helps to change that narrative for me.
The meta story involving this album has been the fact that longtime keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band during the process of recording the album. Anyone who says “he’s just a keyboard player” obviously hasn’t a) heard the changes, starting with Separation Sunday, after he joined the band and b) seen the group live. While his exuberance on stage will be missed, I am sure Craig Finn will spit and flail his arms enough to keep up distracted. On record, there may be a point in mentioning his absence. In lieu of his grandiose tinkling of the ivories, the band made a beeline back towards their more guitar centric sound. Unfortunately, the took a detour towards a more polished sound, forsaking the Thin Lizzy thunder that made ….Almost Killed Me so good. The sleekness does take away from the overall experience, although there are still some good old fashioned jams (“Soft in the Center,” “The Smidge,” “Rock Problems” and lead single “Hurricane J”). Realistically, it doesn’t matter if you have monkeys with cymbals or the London Symphony providing the music backdrop, the focus will be on Finn and his song-stories. Luckily for the band Finn is still as sharp as ever, even if his songwriting takes a darker, more somber turn on the new album. Some of the tracks (“The Sweet Part of the City,” “We Can Get Together,” “Barely Breathing,” “A Slight Discomfort” ) meet his melancholy feeling with similarly downtrodden music. The best track on the album finds the group falling somewhere in the middle, with the tightly coiled tension of “The Weekenders,” that will surely be a live staple for many years to come.
The record isn’t their best album yet, but it also isn’t a compelte falling off. For a band so bombastic and divisive, Heaven is Whenever is an album that really isn’t going to provide too much fodder for either side of the argument. Die hard fans will be able to grab a few great songs to use as evidence and critics will not have to look far to find a few songs that don’t paint the band in the best light. Maybe the Hold Steady are a band that are going to settle into a rountine of making good, not great, albums like Heaven is Whenever, with their first three albums serving as their glory days. I hope I am wrong, but if albums like Heaven is Whenever are the consolation prize, it could be much worse.