At a time when all the hipster bands are highbrow conceptualists, the Hold Steady are keeping alive the tradition of the schlubby genius. The Brooklyn quartet make something mythic from a simple set of core values: sport drinking, mosh pits, power chords, sin, salvation, Springsteen. They look like a bunch of bar backs fronted by an IT guy on a bender, and they don't often stray beyond Seventies hard-rock guitar grind and beery Eighties college-rock romanticism. But only Bruce himself can compete with singer-guitarist Craig Finn's stories of normal, messed-up boys and girls jonesing for cheap release out in that great American noplace where Thunder Road runs into darkness on the edge of town.
On Heaven Is Whenever, the Hold Steady don't just show us how much they love classic rock — they make some of their own. It's their most polished record, nearly majestic at points, without scrimping on bloodshot angst or exuberance.
"The Weekenders" opens with shimmering guitars that are almost U2-like, before exploding into a big, drunken-sailors "whoa, whoa, whoa" chorus. It's got all of Finn's lyrical trademarks: a metal bar, a reservoir, a drug deal at an OTB and a soiree with a hostess who greets guests with lines like, "The theme of this party is the industrial age, and you came in dressed like a train wreck." But Finn's hard-boiled romanticism has gained nuance and empathy; this isn't just gnarly, lowbrow noir, there's real dread in his Bruce-indebted moan as he watches the girl at the song's center get crushed by a good time. "Hurricane J" is equally pathos-ridden, a beleaguered pop-punk banger where Finn tells the titular trouble-girl heroine, "I see the crowd you're hanging with, and those kids don't seem positive," knowing his dad shtick won't work. On "Rock Problems," guitarist Tad Kubler overlays hot, slashing riffs with pretty serrations before lighting up a metal-messiah solo that would've shut down the Sunset Strip in 1986.
Heaven is more musically compact than the band's last album, 2008's Stay Positive: Keyboardist Franz Nicolay recently departed, taking with him piano tinklings that occasionally made the Hold Steady sound like the E Street Band if they spent the Eighties gigging at Cheers. Kubler fills all that space with anthemic splashiness — Bic-lighter sway on "Soft in the Center," Pixies-like inverted skank on "Barely Breathing," pile-driver noise that could fill a hockey rink on "Our Whole Lives."
Going too far off-menu doesn't work on the bluesy "The Sweet Part of the City" or the Bright Eyes folk rock of "A Slight Discomfort." But if the Hold Steady aren't always great musical explorers, they explore why they lose with grand, corny conviction. The most uncharacteristically expansive moment on the album is "We Can Get Together," a fragile acoustic rocker with soft keys and angelic backing vocals. Finn throws his best killer party, just him and an old friend sitting in her bedroom, listening to songs about heaven, including one by Heavenly — cute Nineties Brit punks light-years from the tough-guy squall the Hold Steady pay rent with. "I only had one single," Finn sings. "It was a song about a pure and simple love." For the Hold Steady, simplicity is all the paradise you need.