The Hold Steady - Stay Positive (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

The Hold Steady

Stay Positive (2008)


Someday, you are going to grow old.

Its happening to me. I can remember laying in my bed at eight-years-old, my bedroom door open and the hall light on, thinking about my 14th birthday. Fourteen seems like an impossible age when you are eight, a distant age in which high school and sexual development collide into one supernova of discomfort, frustration and awkwardness.

Fourteen years later, I am 22 years old with a full time job and all the responsibility of adulthood thrust upon me. The bands that I loved growing up (The Get Up Kids, Blink 182, Hot Water Music, Whippersnapper, Face to Face) have all blown up or faded away. The kids at shows look at me like a suit because I come from work, dressed in slacks. I used to think that nothing would ever mean more to me than punk music. Now I look at teens who are what I once was with equal parts nostalgia and pity.

You are going to grow old.

Its happening to the Hold Steady. After kicking around in the art-punk band Lifter Puller, vocalist Craig Finn and lead guitar player Ted Kubler got bored and started another band. This band was to be the spiritual successor to Thin Lizzy, brothers-in-arms for the wounded working class, drunken poet lauriets with slurred tongues and a razor-sharp hold on what goes on in the hearts and minds of the young between 12 and 4 a.m. Like all the best Bruce Springsteen songs, this was a band about small town escapes for kids with big city dreams. After four years of touring the country, putting out records, and leading a small scale classic rock revival, The Hold Steady have released their fourth record, Stay Positive.

You are going to grow old.

Its happening to the unnamed main character on "One For The Cutters," the song that shows the most musical growth on Stay Positive. After three albums of big guitars, swinging anthems, and 1985 keyboard melodies, the band has branched out even more, trying to push past the "bar-band" label and into different musical landscapes. "Cutters" is a harpsichord-lead organ grinder song about a college girl who parties with the townies. They don't seem much different from her, aside from the knife fights and the back-alley sex acts, all of which leave here "distant and different" when all is said and done.

You are going to grow old.

Its happening to Finn. Taking a break from narratives and character sketches, Finn turns his sharp mind and equally sharp tongue inward for the record's title track, a song about leading a scene he finds himself outgrowing. Lyrically, it's the most self-referential of all the Hold Steady's music, and that is saying something. In one track, Finn is able to name-check all of his band's records and a good number of their better tracks. While some might discount this as masturbatory (which it kind of is), it's a nice treat for fanboys and girls.

Returning once again on Stay Positive are the religious overtones, absent from the band's lenses since their brilliant '05 release Separation Sunday. God and Jesus and everyone else from that great book make appearances here; "Lord, I Am Discouraged" is a prayer for a friend dressed up as a big swinging anthem and "Both Crosses" is an abstract about a girl who can see the second coming when she's high enough.

You are going to grow old.

Its happening on Stay Positive. While their musical development is welcome and downright awesome in some spots ("One For The Cutters" and "Both Crosses," specifically), it's their bar-stomp, leave-town rock that packs the houses, and the band delivers on Stay Positive. "Constructive Summer" and "Sequestered in Memphis," the one-two punch that opens the album, are pure Hold Steady; brash classic rock anthems for a new generation of teens looking to drink their way to something better. "Lord, I am Discouraged" and "Slapped Actress" are titanic anthems on par with "First Night" and "How a Resurrection Really Feels," in their weight and tragedy.

Stay Positive is a great record, one of the best I've heard this year, but it wears it's age like an albatross, foretelling of dark times to come. Musically, it finds the band trying to push their limits, trying to expand their compositions and arrangements to be more than they are. Lyrically, it ties up all the loose ends from other albums, conceptually. For all the bravado, all the beers being drank, all the fists in the air, all the solos and keyboards and drums and smiles, it's hard to ignore the giant "Now What?" that lies just beneath the surface of the record. The Hold Steady have peaked; they are looking down from the top, unsure of what lies ahead. Stay Positive is the sobering sound of a band, once steeped in supreme confidence, unsure of the what to do next.

You are going to grow old. Stay positive.