The Red Alert
The Red Alert

The Hold Steady

Heaven is Whenever


Record Review by Angel M. Baker


The first release since the departure of keyboardist, Franz Nicolay, The Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever is just begging for pre-and-post-Nicolay analysis. The consensus: give The Hold Steady some time to work out the kinks.


Heaven is Whenever opens with the record’s standout, “The Sweet Part of the City.” A sleepy and steely intro ushers in those gruff and undeniably familiar vocals that Craig Finn has mastered. Finn has also mastered the turning of stabbing phrases in simple, concise lyrics that pang. He sings lyrics like, “We didn’t feel the pain, We were living it” in so believable a fashion, it is as though he’s been up for days and hasn’t yet washed off the street soot after a bender. This is The Hold Steady at their finest: in the depths and throes of honest peril.


“Soft in the Center” follows in the unfair second runner up position that really shows why The Hold Steady are lauded as the most glorified bar band in America. This is a straight up rock song, born somewhere in the dark hallway of evolution between a Mellencamp cover band and a too-much-make-up Mike Ness on a solo tour.


The record returns to the tortured rockers we love with “Weekenders.” Finn sounds like he might lose his mind like Mike Muir if he doesn’t get a Pepsi. It’s not a punk song but Finn brings a deep, dark desperation to this track that, sickly, as listeners we crave.


“The Smidge,” follows with hair metal riffs and overdone snare that grates. (Yes, way too much cowbell.)


The fifth track, “Rock Problems,” attempts a circumspection that falls flat. Part of the greatness that is The Hold Steady is they will deliver great lyrics to soon-to-be-classic songs in a credo that is otherwise waning. Here, Finn portrays a bored rock star stuck with the knowledge that he put himself here, and the here is not good. Life on the road is hard. We get it. Isn’t this scene in every rock biopic on VH-1? Also, see every Bon Jovi ballad video. Or any video to any ballad ever. Recurring themes are fine – every story is a variation on another story – but here there is little nuance to give “Rock Problems” any teeth.


Thankfully, “We Can Get Together,” which holds the record’s title, is great. Finn goes all heart-oh-his-sleeve and the band sounds larger than life in this quiet number, orchestral even, with lark-like backing vocals. Finn sings, “Heaven is whenever we can get together, Lock your bedroom door, And listen to your records.” Only the opener and the closer rival this track for the blue ribbon.


Keeping up with the ping-pong of good song and not-so-good song, “Hurricane J” is like a life lesson to a little sister, who is also a waitress that Finn (or I should say "protagonist" because it would not be fair to assume Finn lacks the ability to write non-first-person lyrics) wants to make out with in cars. J is “Jessie” and she doesn’t listen to the Rick Springfield-like wisdom being offered to her. This track sounds like it was written when JimBob got a Mom tattoo, not like the street-wise Brooklynites we know The Hold Steady to be.


Back to good, “Barely Breathing” celebrates the glory days of hardcore punk shows when kids could show up and take out their aggression on willing strangers in fist-throwing mayhem. Less of a cougar-go-get-‘im on the dance floor track, and more like a rock band that can sound current (e.g. TV on the Radio or Spoon), “Barely Breathing” shows The Hold Steady are more than just that bar band you saw that one time. Plus there’s a clarinet solo.

Finn’s vocals channel Elvis Costello in “Our Whole Lives” and this song will probably be the fraternity rush song at every Midwestern college in the fall. Lyrics like “Tonight we're gonna have a really good time / But I want to go to heaven on the day I die / Gonna make like a preemptive strike / Hit the 5:30 mass early Saturday night” and “We’re good guys, But we can’t be good every night, Father I have sinned and I want to do it all again tonight” insist a good time, with puking, will be had.


“A Slight Discomfort” rounds out the record on a high note, though lyrically Finn is at his darkest. This is the slowest and moodiest you’ll get on Heaven is Whenever and it finally feels like a song is properly placed. “A Slight Discomfort” plays like a long, lingering, melancholic goodbye.


More by this writer:

Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do

Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away

Trainwreck - The Wreckoning