By Bill Friskics-Warren
The spirituality inherent in the concert experience has long been explicit in the Hold Steady's music, and here, five studio albums into what is shaping up as a brilliant career, frontman Craig Finn still sounds transported by it. "Heaven is whenever / We can get together," he professes, buoyed by the celestial harmonies of a background choir.
Finn is singing about listening to records with a friend, but, as he recently told an interviewer, the song "also speaks to how I feel about our shows, the communal aspect of the audience and performer." "We like to play for you," he sings in the elegiac "Sweet Part of the City," before adding, "We like to pray for you," all but equating the two activities.
(More layered, less crunchy, after the jump.)
Several songs on this new album have a hymn-like quality, an ambiance conveyed through arrangements that are both more textured and atmospheric than those heard on the arena-ready anthems of the band's previous records. Even the up-tempo rockers here rely more on layered guitars and voices than on muscle and crunch, although there's plenty of that on the album as well.
And Finn's lyrics still center on life's not-so-little ups and downs, and on the emotional and spiritual insights to be gleaned from them. "Our struggle still feels wonderful most days," he sings amid the oceanic sweep of the seven-minute closing track. "We're not afraid / We have our faith," he affirms elsewhere in the stanza. Their faith, yes, and their audience as well.