Music Reviews
Heaven Is Whenever

The Hold Steady Heaven Is Whenever

(Vagrant) Rating - 7/10
‘Hi, I'm Bill, and I'm a Hold Steady obsessive.’ Hi, Bill. ‘I'd been clean for about four months, until May 4. I wouldn't even let myself listen to the new tracks leaked on Stereogum. Wouldn't let myself read the early reviews. In 2008, with Stay Positive, things first started to spiral. I was hooked. After that, hearing the hard-as-hell rhythms and shout-along rants of Separation Sunday was like Richard Pryor discovering freebase. Then, there were the ups and downs with Boys and Girls in America and their debut Almost Killed Me. It was the gateway. Hüsker Dü, Drive By Truckers, Okkervil River, Bruce Springsteen (BRUCE freakin' SPRINGSTEEN!). That's when it became clear: It was time to pull myself together.

‘Then this new album, Heaven is Whenever, comes out, and I'm back for a fix. People had their theories about what keyboardist Franz Nicolay's departure would mean, like the band would have to completely re-imagine itself, or something. Franz was always the obvious choice in the game of "One of These Things is Not Like the Other," both musically and visually (you could hang a jacket on that mustache), but it's even clearer now that he was not an outlier to, but a key component of, the band's identity.

‘Now guitarist Tad Kubler is back at (well, even more entrenched in) the sonic center, which has its pluses and minuses. Take The Smidge. The guitar's interplay with the fuzzed-out bassline makes for one of the most fist-pumping rhythm parts the band has ever devised, giving a slightly modernized edge to their well-worn AC/DC-style riffage. For all Finn's casual references to bands like The Youth of Today, the instrumentations (especially the cowbell) evoke Nazareth's Hair of the Dog, a song and a phrase that encapsulates both the ethos of the Hold Steady's work and my relationship with this record.

‘Finn's confidence in his shtick is so strong that he'll drop his audience into the action of a story before they have any idea what the hell is happening. It's like coming out of hibernation to realize that the forest is on fire.

‘He does this on The Weekenders, telling us, "There was that whole weird thing with the horses. I think they know exactly what happened. I don’t think it needs any explaining." OK, maybe a little explaining? Not with Finn and his deft narrative devices. Devotees will appreciate the return of the clairvoyant girl from Chips Ahoy! (who now reminds me of Desmond from LOST), and close-reading newcomers will dig the way the structure of the lyrics lets the listener inside the character's head by recreating the feeling of trying to recall the specifics of a night gone awry. There's beautiful irony in a story of a girl who can see a few seconds into the future but can't remember how she got home the night before.

’The band’s most obvious premise – blunt cock rock coupled with Finn’s high-falutin’, Tom Wolfe-ish literary- and pop culture-obsessed verbosity – remains the bedrock and, in ways, is even more focused than before. On Hurricane J and Rock Problems, both obvious choices for singles, Kubler employs power chord riffs that ought to remind twenty-somethings of NOFX and Bad Religion as much as they still remind everybody of Thin Lizzy.

'The keyboards – also courtesy of Kubler – are still present but understated, leaving tracks such as “advice song” Soft in the Center to sound like the band members cut this batch with some Van Halen-meets-Counting Crows kitsch, except for when Kubler unleashes his “Indie Slash” guitar solos.

‘There are some missteps on this album, but the last line on the record, which comes at the end of the seven-minute closer, is a perfect sign-off: “This shouldn’t hurt, but you might feel a slight discomfort” – an ominous warning and a promise of a new awakening.’