Craig Finn has characterized his last two albums with the Hold Steady–2010’s Heaven is Whenever and 2014’s Teeth Dreams–as creative low-points. Despite their bright spots, those records sometimes felt as though the group was suffering from the age-old rock & roll problem: how does a band grow up and still maintain its sense of self?
On Thrashing Thru the Passion, the Hold Steady’s first record in five years, and their first with keyboardist Franz Nicolay in over a decade, the newly reconfigured sextet arrive at a simple answer: “Let’s all tell a little truth tonight.” For the Hold Steady, that means abandoning the self-seriousness that has sometimes bogged down their recent work, and the result is a shockingly fun return-to-form collection of sad-sack storytelling.
A simple glance at the tracklist shows the Finn has returned to creating the types of larger-than-life characters that populated the band’s classic-era records like 2005’s Separation Sunday and 2006’s Boys and Girls in America. There’s “Blackout Sam,” a local legend who can’t stop flashing his backstage laminate; there’s the catchy centerpiece “Entitlement Crew,” a “Sequestered in Memphis” sequel of sorts that finds Finn’s salesman protagonist wrapped up in Campari and commissions.
The Hold Steady has fallen back in love with its own playfulness, deploying boozy piano runs and Tad Kubler’s sledgehammer riffs with ease. Finn, meanwhile, is on his A-game, darting off descriptors about “grifters and grey alcoholics” and outdoing himself with old-man-in-the-party-pit proverbs: “Sorry I’m late, I got caught in a mosh,” he sing-shouts, “with this dude who said he used to play with Peter Tosh.”
One new motif? The Stones. Finn namechecks the band’s “2000 Light Years From Home” and “Faraway Eyes” before arriving at this keeper: “Hold Steady at the Comfort Inn/Mick Jagger’s at the Mandarin.” The “Faraway Eyes” mention feels especially apt: The Hold Steady have been a band for almost exactly as long as the Rolling Stones were when they made their 1978 comeback classic Some Girls. And just as Some Girls rejuvenated Mick and co., the Hold Steady’s latest finds the Brooklyn collective rediscovering the mix of morose jubilation and joyful myth-making they perfected a dozen years ago. Freed from the pressures of serving as Craig Finn’s primary creative outlet, the band has learned how to keep telling its hoodrat saga. “Once you get good,” as Finn puts it, “you can get it wherever you are.”