Rock and Roll!

So I usually leave the online rock critic thing to Swede, but I have to talk about the new Hold Steady!!!! That’s right! Four exclamation points! Because that’s how I feel when I listen to it! I feel like FOUR CONSECUTIVE EXCLAMATION POINTS!

But seriously folks, Stay Positive grabbed me by the throat and has been shaking me and shaking me until I just gave in and started dancing and singing along. And I don’t even care anymore. The first time I listened to the opening track, “Constructive Summer,” with the piano solo bridge and “let this be an annual reminder that we can all be something bigger,” I literally threw my fist in the air and yelled “Yeah!”

“Me and my friends are like the drums on Lust for Life.” “Raise a Toast to St. Joe Strummer he might’ve been our only decent teacher.”

The people in this band love rock and roll. They are the true believers of rock and roll. And they give it back to us as a gift, like they aren’t taking credit for making the music, but more like they found it by a curb, in a beat up notebook, and it changed their lives, so that they had no choice but to get on stage and give it back, demanding everyone sing along. Rock is scripture to them, and a concert is their sermon on the mount.

Which brings me to the next thing I love about this album. It isn’t happy. Or at least, it isn’t cheerful. It reminds me of an album that I’ve mentioned here before, The Pernice Brothers’ “The World Won’t End.” At first it seems upbeat, but when you listen to the album, you realize that the title is not being encouraging — the speaker is disappointed that the world won’t end. So while the album is upbeat almost to a fault, the subject matter is dark. Very dark. The Polyphonic Spree makes these albums of unfettered joy that, while pleasant, are shallow. There is nothing shallow about the message behind these sing-along rock anthems. The music is referred to in a scriptural way throughout the album, and the stories it tells are Old Testament-violent and scary. But the music is fist-pumpingly redemptive.

And another thing — Stay Positive is a rock musical! Not a concrete story with a beginning, middle and end. But the Hold Steady’s music oozes narrative. When I listen to it, every song is like a page I can’t wait to turn to find out what happens next. The first time I listened to it, it was on my phone’s music player. I listened to the first three tracks and was convinced it was a steady story arc throughout the album, like The Streets “A Grand Don’t Come for Free.” But then I realized I had the playlist on shuffle. I was listening to them out of order. Every lyric that frontman Craig Finn writes is a story. It’s a line you hear someone say next to you at a bar, but can’t make out exactly what the person is recollecting, but it sounds like a great time you wish you could have been around for. Or a horrible time you’re glad you didn’t have to experience firsthand.

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