Music Reviews
Teeth Dreams

The Hold Steady Teeth Dreams

(Washington Square) Rating - 5/10

In the latter half of the 21st century, The Hold Steady had as much a right as any band to be called the best rock band around. Tad Kubler’s big hooks, Franz Nicolay’s floating, pretty contributions on keys and Craig Finn’s brilliant lyrics, stories about punks with names like Hallelujah and Charlemagne traveling Kerouac-style across the country, taking drugs and going to parties with the wrong people allowed them to occupy a much-needed but otherwise-empty niche. They wrote big, anthemic rock songs for punks that couldn’t jive with Bruce Springsteen, and Finn’s lyrics, despite their epic, sprawling subject matter, were rooted in clever turns of phrases, references both inter- and intratextual, that were well-suited to the generation of internet hipsters that James Murphy imagined losing his edge to. The lyrics were delivered with a thoughtful distance without taking away from the honesty of either the “massive highs” or the “crushing lows.” It was a band that could be your life that never made you admit the absurdity of a band being your life—their bar-band demeanor and Finn’s speak-sing delivery and humor did that for you, and that’s precisely what made them your life.

It’s unfortunate that that band, equal parts Springsteen and Minneapolis punk (that is, Husker Du and The Replacements) is gone, but perhaps inevitable.  Before Finn was spitting those narratives with The Hold Steady he was doing the same with Lifter Puller, and while there has never been any doubt that Finn is more grown up than his characters, with Teeth Dreams, he seems ready to leave them behind. On Heaven Is Whenever Holly, Charlemagne, and Gideon were absent in name only, but their spirits pervaded the album. On Teeth Dreams, they are gone altogether, and for the first time, Finn genuinely sings every song, telling us how a resurrection really feels.

Finn acknowledges this cleverly in the opening song, I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You, in which the “Cityscape Skins,” a call back to Sweet Payne on the band’s debut, Almost Killed Me and an appropriate symbol of the druggy, criminal life of Hold Steady characters are mostly dead or moved out. But just as the first-person narrator in that song can’t go back home without running into one or two of the stragglers, The Hold Steady can’t quite get away from their past output. Despite being completely without Nicolay, this album and adding Steve Selvidgeon guitar, there are constant teases of the big anthems. 

The Ambassador, for example, is big enough to pass for a Boys & Girls in America-era song, complete with a vivid, mythic story of Catholicism and a guy with “crosses all upside down carved in his arm.” But on an album of more downbeat songs where guitars shimmer rather than shake, in which Finn sings rather than orates, it comes off instead as a mismatch of form and content, the grandiosity approaching parody where The Hold Steady have always been closer to pastiche, and Kubler’s big guitar leads don’t pack the punch that they did for the band’s best albums. Likewise, On with the Business, the only song in which Finn gives his singing voice a rest, highlights clever lyrics but, thanks to weaker guitar parts, doesn’t feel like a sing-along. To be fair, this is almost certainly, at least in part, a conscious stylistic shift, a choice to move away from big choruses and toward larger and more grown perspectives that reveal themselves with more distance from the characters than previous albums provided. Nevertheless, the guitar solo in the same song seems dying to take off but rarely gets off the ground, and there are just enough guitar leads aiming for arena status to muddle the album’s statements.

Those moments are still the exception, however; they are too close to the old without quite reaching the highs, so it’s harder to take the new on its own terms. If the old can be compared to Husker Du, then the new makes for a natural comparison to Sugar, more power-pop than punk much of the time, with lighter guitar fills and much clearer production. This works best on songs like Almost Anything, in which Finn’s stories are emotional without compromising density. It may not match First Night, but it’s hard to complain about Judas. Big Cig and Runner’s High, meanwhile, may have a bit too much distance from their characters to make them memorable, but musically, they are sound. It isn’t until Oaks that all the pieces finally seem to fit together. It’s a nine-minute break-up story delivered in metaphors and natural imagery that would never fit on Separation Sunday, but thanks to better guitar tracks and its doing away with conventional choruses, it is the sound of a band affirming its new identity. If that’s what The Hold Steady have in store next time, I’m ready, but Teeth Dreams on its own sounds like a transitional record, compelling in spots but nevertheless unfulfilling.