This year is the 10th anniversary of The Hold Steady‘s debut album Almost Killed Me. While this album is a pretty weak and rough debut, it is also a first introduction to the ethos that became The Hold Steady.
The Hold Steady are one of those bands with a fervent fan base of devotees. Their live shows are raging good times and even as the band ages, they maintain the same level of energy. But it can be overwhelming to grasp the full breadth of content when there are so many albums and so many songs. So for this new feature, I am going to attempt to do so.
So pop on the playlist and read along as I introduce the glory of the Hold Steady in 15 tracks (and 3 cover songs).
As mentioned above, in 2004 The Hold Steady released Almost Killed Me, a raw record full of Craig Finn’s talk singing. Many of the songs are forgettable, especially when considering the rest of their discography. But one song sticks out. It is an awkwardly-tempo track called “Certain Songs.” It tells the story of the music fan, scanning the jukebox for those perfect songs. Each song applies to a different situation. “B-1 is for the good girls and it’s “Only The Good Die Young” / C-9 is for the making eyes, it’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” / B12 is for the speeders and D4 is for the lovers.” And the song ends with “Certain songs/ they get so scratched into our souls.” Whether or not they knew it yet, many Hold Steady Songs have the ability to get scratched into our souls.
When moving on to their second album, Separation Sunday, it is obviously that The Hold Steady were on their way to honing the sound. Released in 2005, it is this album where we are introduced to their group of friends and acquaintances. We learn about Holly in “Banging Camp” and “How Resurrection Really Feels.” We are introduced to a “hoodrat” friend who is referenced in some of their later material.
The Hold Steady broke through with Boys and Girls in America in 2006. This album is full of essential Hold Steady material. The opening track “Stuck Between Stations” was my first exposure to the band and opens with a powerful exclamation: “There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right. / Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” The Hold Steady are one of those bands that have the same point of reference as their fan base. Whether it is allusions to Jack Kerouac (in this song) or Hüsker Dü (in later songs), they touch upon familiar pop culture subjects.
So many of The Hold Steady songs tell stories of crazy nights. “Party Pit” and “Massive Nights” are two such songs from BAGIA. “Party Pit” is a coming-home-again ballad with pianos. The lyric “I’m gonna walk around and drink some more” is a simple exclamation of being young and deciding your fate. “Massive Nights” has that signature “Woah-oh” within the chorus. It just invites fans to “woah-oh” along.
The Hold Steady like to give advice. “You Can Make Him Like You” is sort of a strange song as it intends to impart pearls of wisdom but instead describes a situation where the lady has all the power. In the chorus, they exclaim, “If you get tired of your boyfriend’s things/ There’s always other boys/ There’s always other boyfriends.”
The best advice ever is presented in the non-album track “You Gotta Dance With Who You Came To The Dance With.” Choosing your evening’s dance partner is like choosing the evening’s liquor, you go with what you started with. Changing it up at the dance will just lead to heartbreak and hangovers. (The version found on the playlist is from Live at Fingerprints. Before playing an acoustic version of the song, Craig tells the audience about the experience that inspired the lyrics)
The Hold Steady is not all ruckus party songs. In “Citrus,” we see their softer side. Craig Finn said in the band’s 2007 Live at Fingerprints session that this song is an attempt at writing a Led Zeppelin type ballad. It is a just plain beautiful song about drinking. “Hey barroom/ hey tavern/ I find hope in all the souls you gather.”
In 2008, the band released Stay Positive. “Sequestered in Memphis,” the lead single from that song, is an extremely catchy song about a crazy night with a mysterious female. In the story, a gentleman meets a lady that may or not be a felon. Once the female departs his company, Finn is swiftly questioned by the police and exclaims, “In barlight, she looked alright./ In daylight, she looked desperate./ That’s alright/ I was desperate too.” While few may experience a crazy night with an actual felon, many experience actual daylight regret.
Frequently The Hold Steady writes about themselves and their role in the overall scene. One song where this is especially obvious is in “Stay Positive,” the title track from that album. Even though some might dislike this, I think it is just another way to connect with fans. In the song, the band describes how the community developed over time and became “unified.” They throwback to “Positive Jam” (from Almost Killed Me) and then exclaims “We couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you.”
Heaven is Whenever was released in 2010. The artwork features the raised palm. Anyone who attended a Hold Steady concert or seen videos of Finn performing live will be familiar with this imagery. Finn is extremely animated on stage and will often raise his hand along as if he is preaching to the crowd.
In “The Weekenders,” they revisit the psychic horse predictor from “Chips Ahoy!,” a great song from Boys and Girls in America that did not make the playlist but is worth many listens. The Hold Steady surrounds themselves with a myriad of troubled females and none seems as unfortunate as the girl in “Hurricane J.” A lady without a chance, the narrator hopes to take her under his wing even though he is not her boyfriend. It is this desire to help one another that is very characteristic of The Hold Steady’s lyrics.
An introduction to The Hold Steady would not be complete without a short spotlight on their cover song work. They recently toured with Deer Tick and recorded a cover of Tick’s song “Easy.” It is no secret that THS love Bruce Springsteen and their cover of “Atlantic City” really honors this standout track of Bruce’s Nebraska. They also covered Bob Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out My Window” for I’m Not There.
The Hold Steady are about a few things. They write songs on familiar subjects like hanging out with friends and strangers. They are loyal to the community and companions. They are inviting to fans and inclusive to all.
Some might find Finn’s talk-singing sophomoric and awkward. Some might find their ethos too much. It is hard to keep track of all the characters after all!
But when looking The Hold Steady’s entire discography, it is easy to find something for all to enjoy with their breadth of content that includes slow ballads, re-imagined covers of songs by their heroes, and lively party songs.