Listening to The Hold Steady’s six studio albums breeds a familiarity with the subject matter more than the entire discographies of most bands can. Vocalist Craig Finn frequently mentions his (anti) heroes Gideon and Holly. The antagonist’s, besides Gideon and Holly’s plentiful self-destructive vices, frequently appear as the Cityscape Skins, a tattooed gang of thugs from Minnesota. Oftentimes Holly and Gideon get into trouble in Ybor City, Minneapolis, or the streets of New York city. The albums may not create a comprehensive storyline, but the reoccurring characters give Finn’s tales of late nights of drug cocktails a foundation, a sort of sympathy we can attach to Holly and Gideon’s relatively tragic lifestyles.
2010’s Heaven Is Whenever was the band’s first album released sans keyboardist Franz Nicolay, and his departure is often cited as the reason this effort is considered their weakest yet. More than just an absence of keyboards, Heaven is Whenever lacked the familiarity of the band’s previous efforts. With the exception of the (excellent) track “The Weekenders”, which is a direct sequel of a previous song recounting a relationship with a woman who can predict horse races, the album holds no ties to any of the Hold Steady’s previous work. Instead, it drifted off into vague generalities, saccharine musings on the nature of love and life. This sort of stuff works for some bands, but Heaven is Whenever took everything that was great about The Hold Steady, the moral ambiguity and lack of resolutions, and distilled it into radio friendly slosh. “There’s always other boyfriends” turned into “You get the one’s you love the best”.
Which is why the first line from the opening track “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” is so encouraging. “The Cityscape Skins are kinda kickin’ again”, and Finn is back to singing about the characters that make The Hold Steady so engaging. From the divorcee whom he urges to get back out there in “Spinners” to the multi-personality’d spark plug who smokes Malibu 120’s in “Big Cig”, Teeth Dreams limits its scope to individuals. Perhaps not the same Holly and Gideon from their previous albums, but at the very least a more grown up iteration. Teeth Dreams isn’t necessarily about the crazy liquored up nights, but rather the hung-over, sobering morning after. The Hold Steady are older, and Finn’s songwriting reflects that. On “Wait A While”, Finn contradicts his message from Boys and Girls in America‘s “You Can Make Him Like You”, singing, “Another boyfriend isn’t going to make you happy/ I’m sorry but maybe you should wait a while”. Finn sings with an eye toward the future, for the first time considering consequences rather than actions. Gideon and Holly aren’t ever specifically mentioned, but their presence is apparent, and maybe they’re growing up a bit.
That isn’t to say that Teeth Dreams doesn’t get dark, it’s perhaps their darkest album yet. While descriptions of drug fueled rampages are scaled back, so is the inherent hopefulness and religious imagery that was prevalent in The Hold Steady’s previous works. On “On With The Business” Finn howls, “Blood on the carpet/ mud on the mattress/ waking up with that American Sadness”, as visceral and vivid an image Finn conjures up on the album. He later admits “I said a couple things that probably weren’t technically true”. Whether that’s referring to the details in the song or the entirety of his songwriting career you can’t be sure, but either way it dulls any positive story he may have told, and heightens the melancholy.
The album closes with the excellent epic, “Oaks”, a nine minute masterpiece about the difficulties two addicts face in avoiding their nameless vices. Whether or not they indulge themselves is unclear, but the song reveals the frailty of their mindsets, the daily temptation, the self-deprecation each addict feels about their inability to stay away from whatever drugs they crave.
While Finn’s lyrics are as strong as they have ever been, the production value keeps Teeth Dreams from becoming a true return to form. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz, the songs often feel muddled and blended together. After Nicolay’s departure, Steve Selvidge signed on as a second guitarist, and while there are some worthwhile guitar solos (notably on “Oaks” and “Runners High”) the dueling guitars do more to cramp the songs than expand them, oftentimes taking focus away from Finn’s distinctive bar-band vocals. While the departure of Nicolay is by no means a death sentence for The Hold Steady, it is clear that they have yet to find a sound that works without him.
RIYL- Bruce Springsteen, The Mountain Goats, The Walkmen