Music Reviews
Open Door Policy

The Hold Steady Open Door Policy

(Positive Jams) Rating - 7/10

The Hold Steady aren’t anything if not consistent. Since their 2004 debut Almost Killed Me, Craig Finn and company have delivered energetic, raucous rock songs about hoodrats, addicts, and other down-on-their-luck characters. On their last album, 2019’s Thrashing Thru the Passion, the band only doubled-down on their approach (thanks in large part to the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay). The album easily outshined their previous effort, 2014's rowdy yet static Teeth Dreams.

So it might make sense that, upon first listen, Open Door Policy sounds like a change in direction. Opening track The Feelers is a slow-burner of a tune, a rebuke to previous openers like Hornets! Hornets! or Stuck Between Stations. The polished rhythm of Unpleasant Breakfast relies on a drum machine, a rarity for a band whose passionate intensity is all but set in stone. The Hold Steady dial down almost entirely on the breezy Riptown, embracing instead hints of southern rock swagger.

Yet it’s arguably more accurate to say Open Door Policy shows the band coming full circle (it is, after all, their eighth album). Longtime fans will hear the brassy instrumentations of The Hold Steady’s now trademark sound weaved into the rougher and darker, if not louder, territory of their earlier work. The dirty hook that opens Spices foreshadows a catchy yet bleak song reminiscent of their 2005 breakthrough Separation Sunday. The rolling drums and twinkling piano keys that decorate the verses of Lanyards and single Family Farm may remind listeners of the band’s now-classic Boys and Girls in America

This approach also highlights that, for the first time in years, The Hold Steady have crafted an album of songs with aesthetics that match their lyrical content. The standout The Prior Procedure is about a wealthy man who offers his home as a solace for the poor and less fortunate (“That's why I instituted this open door policy.”) By the end of the song, his guests realize he’s only in it for his ego, literally solidified in a statue “to honor his ways and his words.” Me & Magdalena slides between sinister grooves and brief, intense organ and drum hooks, marking the song’s story like new chapters in a novel. Here, Finn’s lyrical mastery is on full display, his telling of a girl’s doomed relationship with a musician spilling out so fast he can barely keep up. Indeed, even the album’s brighter musical moments are tempered by visceral imagery (“You just can't keep throwing up / And then cover it with sawdust,” Finn sings on Unpleasant Breakfast.)

Nevertheless, Open Door Policy has its weaker moments, particularly in the album’s final tracks. Riptown is a rare moment where The Hold Steady coast. The intense Me & Magdalena is followed by the less-effective album closer Hanover Camera. Both embrace 1970’s soft rock tropes—grooving beats punctuated by cutting guitar shreds—that feel too similar given their back-to-back placement.

The songs in Open Door Policy were recorded back in 2019 across two sessions described as open and fun, while also describing that it “feels like our most musically expansive record.” While the album isn’t quite the overhaul that quote makes it out to be, there are enough twists to catch longtime fans off guard. Even with eight albums to their name, The Hold Steady continue to prove that consistency doesn’t mean going stale.