The Hold Steady’s “Heaven is Whenever”

Holly gives The Hold Steady’s “Heaven is Whenever” a 9 out of 10. Read more!

Holly Etchison

out of 10

Heaven is Whenever
May 4, 2010

Putting on the Hold Steady’s latest album, Heaven is Whenever, I begin to recognize that I have kind of come into the fifth inning of a “not to be missed” game. Has everyone else been watching from the get-go? Where have I been? Lost at the concession stand, eating hotdogs? Drinking soda? Listening to “Pleased To Meet Me” until it is no longer godly? Wherever I have been, I am now instantly transported to a time when I used to spend all my free hours at the Record Bar store in the mall, standing in front of the cassette (yes, cassette) racks, flipping thru the newfangled cd bins; to a time when we actually went to the store to buy music, when mp3 would mean the same thing to us as R2d2, when songs fit into a square shaped case made of plastic and paper, not a device smaller than your palm. Maybe you’d like it, maybe you wouldn’t, but $8.99 later it was yours. Yea, it dates me, but it also fills me with a sweet nostalgia for an era that I may’ve been at the tail end of without realizing. And somehow, so does the Hold Steady.

Things start out easy enough with “Sweet Part of The City,” carried off in the gritty worldwise voice of Craig Finn. Reflecting on locales and distance travelled and the uncertainty of a place called heaven except in tangible moments, he languidly recalls: “We were bored so we started a band/ We like to play for you.”

Gears shift with “Soft in the Center,” equal parts driving rock beat, bar band breakdown and the admonition of a rocker, older and wiser, telling you what to do about that body of water we sometimes call a heart, which can freeze over, but sometimes “Get soft in the center/ And the center is a dangerous place… You gotta get yourself right, kid.”  It’s pretty brilliant, actually, and pretty kind.

I laughed out loud during “The Weekenders.”  For some reason I thought of Bruce’s Tunnel of Love; for some reason I felt I had lived these lines: “There was that whole weird thing with the horses/ I think they know exactly what happened… I’m pretty sure I wasn’t your first choice/ I think I was the last one remaining.”  Laugh or cry, the choice is yours, and was mine, as I plucked up my courage to follow to the finish: “God only knows it’s not always a positive thing/ To see a few seconds into the future… In the end only the girls know the whole truth.”  Personal associations aside, or perhaps highly considered, this is a clever housing of insightful lyricism in a rock ballad.

“We Can Get Together” again highlights the notion of some kind of heaven.  That heaven, as it boils down, is whenever “we” can get together. He has known pure and simple love, and that has become his version of eternal paradise this side of the stars.  And it may be revisited time and again, thru memory and songs: trying to find yourself and your way thru an album collection, finding yourselves together, at least in the process; you had been closer to the truth than you had ever set out to be.  An angelic chorus “ahs” in the background, the instruments carry you to a higher, happier place.

Changing course, it seems the Violent Femmes show up for a Texas two-step on “Barely Breathing.”  Slightly haunting, the oracle’s voice repeats from stage right: “The kids are all distracted…No one wins at violent shows.”  Music is the world, the stage becomes a cross: “Showing up at the shows like you care about the scene still/ But where were you when the blood was spilled and they almost killed me.”

In “Our Whole Lives” we hear of heaven again, maybe a little bit like Elvis Costello would have sung it on My Aim is True: “But I want to go to heaven when I die.”  A battle of conscience, a confession of a semi-penitent sinner: “Father I have sinned and I wanna do it all again.”  And the earthly exchange of human love seems to suffice once more: “You’re damn right I believe in love because I’ve been in love and I’ve loved right back.”

The melodramatic piano and death march drumbeat of “A Slight Discomfort” create a beautiful denouement from a rock ‘n roll inferno to the shores of paradise.  He sings, “We’re not afraid/ We have our faith.”  The drums build, trumpets sound, the gates are opened, the rock ‘n roll messenger heralds us from a shore of knowing: “This shouldn’t hurt/ But you might feel a slight discomfort.”  A two note piano serenade and a sound like cicadas at the end of a southern summer evening bring us to the end; the metamorphosis is complete.

Rockers with heart, and apparently a few books on their nightstands, Minnesotans making it happen in NY, NY, there is enough poetry and passion packed into the ten songs in this fifth chapter of the musical story that is the Hold Steady to keep filling up their resume with love from the music-listening world. A sort of jangly balm of Gilead to wounded kids at heart everywhere, to those who believe a song can make a difference, we’re reminded not to give up on love, to tumble with the times; we’re warned of certain pitfalls. We’re promised there’s something more.

–Holly Etchison, June 28, 2010