Right now, no band displays the ranting soul, haunted heart or diseased liver of the American rock myth with more truth and empathy than the Hold Steady. The Brooklyn band's fourth set — their most adventurous yet — shows their loser-outlaw storytelling and classic riff propulsion in full flower. It's a punk-weaned, 21st-century version of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.
Per the title, Stay Positive is remarkably optimistic. Of course, the Hold Steady's optimism is usually stoned and unreliable. "We're gonna build something this summer!" Craig Finn hollers on the jet-engine opener, "Constructive Summer." But when the mob-chorus shouts, "Get hammered!" it's clear the season may not be so constructive after all. By "Sequestered in Memphis," the singer is in trouble with the law; the specter of cops, fights and bad craziness continues throughout.
The music is more rousing than ever; the power chords and hair-metal wanks spiked with singalong chants and new instrumental flavors: harpsichord ("One for the Cutters"), Frampton Comes Alive!-style talk box ("Joke About Jamaica"), even psych-folk jamming ("Both Crosses," with J Mascis on banjo). The small-time hustlers, hoodrats and druggies feel high-school-yearbook true, and the band's idols might be yours too: They invoke Springsteen and Iggy Pop, and credit "Saint Joe Strummer" as "our only decent teacher." Tellingly, Stay Positive ends with a shout-out to another punk hero: indie film pioneer John Cassavetes, who blurred fictional and real-life trauma in brilliantly raw art until hard living killed him. May Finn and company take his inspiration in moderation.