And a glorious Hold Steady Day it is, as we celebrate David Simon Cowell’s return, like Lazarus from the dead, or like David Caruso from an ill-fated attempt at becoming a movie star.
Like all of you, I woke up this morning with a nervous, excited feeling in my stomach. I raced down the stairs to see what Franz the Elf had left under our Hold Steady Tree. The tree was golden with bar lights and beer, and I tore open my gifts. Turns out they were all just different kinds of alcohol, but hey, that’s one of the things that makes Hold Steady Day so special. My stockings contained pills and poppers, and my wife gave me a cross to wear ironically. We lit candles for Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon.
I left the house, and walked the streets of my city, which, just for today, made itself up to look just like Minneapolis, per mayoral decree. I high-fived everyone I passed. Fist pumps were exchanged. At random intervals, I yelled out, “Me and my friends are like…” and everyone nearby would call back in unison, “Double whiskey coke, no ice!”
I just can’t figure out why Hold Steady Day isn’t a national holiday yet. Is it because of fucking racist Arizona? I mean — every family, every person, every American, we all celebrate Hold Steady Day…
It’s just me?
Well, this is embarrassing.
Anyway, The Hold Steady’s new album, Heaven is Whenever, does hit the streets today, and it presents me with a legitimate problem. How does one remain objective when listening to and critiquing new music by bands we truly, unabashedly love?
I’m not talking about 99% of bands, including ones we like a lot. I’m talking about the once-a-generation bands that hit us right in the sweet spot, and make us want to follow them around the country (Just me again? Shut the fuck up.) The ones that have us circling their albums’ release dates on the calendar, wishing we could play guitar just so we could learn their songs, and generally acting like a lovestruck teenage girl. For me, those artists have been Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Nirvana, Stryper, Pavement, and The Hold Steady.
I pride myself in being able to critique art objectively, as much as art can be critiqued. I have no problems fairly rating the latest movies by favorite directors, or the latest books by my favorite authors. But when it comes to those bands occupying the rarified space in my heart, I lose my grip. Bias seeps out of my pores. I regress into a six-year-old kid that can’t stand to hear a bad word about his parents.
This is only really a problem when a band is at that weird point in their career when you’re not sure if they’re still in their prime, of if they’ve started to lose a few miles per hour on their fastball (percentage of my posts containing baseball metaphors? 95. And according to PECOTA, I’m expected to have an 8% increase in baseball metaphors per paragraph this season.). I have no problem figuring out that the latest R.E.M. album is terrible, or that the latest Springsteen album has pretty pop melodies but terrible lyrics. On the other side of the career arc, I also have no problem realizing that Life’s Rich Pageant, Slanted and Enchanted, and Separation Sunday are all-time classics.
But it’s that middle ground that makes me jittery, in part because so few bands have been able to maintain a prolonged peak period. I’ve always wanted to believe the bands I love will keep pumping out great material, that the initial rush of passion will last forever. But I know it never quite works out that way, so I’m always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
When new albums are released, it’s nearly impossible to remain objective, as I’m being pulled in conflicting directions. Part of me wants to be overly kind to the band that means so much to me, to overrate material I know is inferior to their hallowed past. But part of me is overly harsh because I want the new material to sound exactly like the old stuff, though different in a way that I can’t describe and don’t fully understand. I want the bands to evolve, but not to abandon their ethos.
Also problematic is the pattern that most rock artists become softer and more “mature” as their careers progress. They break out the mandolins and string sections around album number four or five. Instead of one ballad per album, there will be four. And my tastes run more to fast, catchy songs, so I have additional incentive to hop off the bandwagon early.
There are a lot of troubling early signs surrounding the new Hold Steady album: Franz left (apparently taking the right to use a piano sound with him), the pace of the new material seems slower, and the band seems to be retreating from the anthemic, driving rock that’s served as its bread and butter. I’m concerned.
And if The Hold Steady release a great album of slower songs with complex arrangements, I’m not sure I’ll be able to fully accept or appreciate the achivement. I also don’t know if I’ll be able to admit if the new album is terrible, unworthy of the band’s history. I want another Boys and Girls in America, and now I’m not sure if I’ll ever get it. One Boys and Girls should be enough, but it isn’t.
For selfish reasons, I want the Hold Steady to become an all-time great band, to shift from personal favorite to beloved member of the rock canon. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll still always love the band, but I’ll also feel the sickening tug of promise unfulfilled.
Maybe we should just toss objectivity out the window and embrace our inner fanboys. What else is music for, if not to love it completely and without reservation? With almost all bands, I can take a step back and listen to their music from a chilly distance. With The Hold Steady, I can’t do that, and I’m not sure I want that ability.