It's like a white, middle class dork's dream at the moment, with new albums out by indie royalty The National, The New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene (Who somehow manage to be good in spite of that terrible name), and the ever-mighty The Fall, as well as the latest disc from The Hold Steady, who have just put out their fifth studio album, Heaven is Whenever. And as much as I'd love to tell you my impressions of their direction gleaned from the recent concert I attended were wrong, I cannot do so in good conscience. But, as much as I hate to acknowledge that eternal bastion of pretentiousness, I must agree with Pitchfork in their assessment of this album, namely, this is very clearly a transitional album for the band, moving from their past awe-inspiring awesomeness into whatever brave new world awaits, and until that endpoint becomes fixed, it's hard to entirely judge this album. But while future offerings may lead to a re-considering of Heaven is Whenever, at the moment we only have the available information to go on, and that information is not good.
Since their last album, 2008s Stay Positive, the band featured a slight lineup modification, as they lost both keyboardist Franz Nicolay and his awesome mustache:
The album begins with what sounds rather like a dobro on The Sweet Part of the City, a surprise after the last disc came out blaring the fire-breathing Constructive Summer. This is mixed in with acoustic guitars and backwards plucking, as Craig Finn revisits his by-now traditional themes of kids drinking and playing music mixed in with the requisite religious imagery/references. It's by no means a failure, but at the same time, it never manages to really be interesting either. Finn, now showing more confidence in his expanded range after the years of vocal lessons he has been taking, sings rather than sputters, and nothing of note ever happens. What is noteworthy is that there are far more background vocals than were present on past albums, a trend that will continue (And become increasingly more obnoxious) as the album progresses. Yet this is still better than track two, Soft in the Center, which attempts to bring back the guitars to restore some sense of normalcy to the proceedings, but falls flat on its face. This highlights a disturbing fact: The band has not completely turned its back on rocking out, but throughout Heaven is Whenever, they often sound awkward when they attempt to bring back the guitars. Of course, considering a decent amount of the slower songs are also off-putting maybe it's simply the songs themselves. But the fact that The Hold Steady no longer seem able to slide back into what made them a name in the first place is rather disconcerting. Anyway, Soft in the Center is a fairly generic ballad, featuring stilted riffing under Finn's singing throughout the verses, which really could be played by almost any band out there, something that simply could not be said about past offerings. But so far we're in boringly inoffensive territory. It is what used to be the band's highlight that moves this track over the line to outright awful. Over syrupy oohs and ahs, the chorus finds Finn crooning "You can't get every girl, so love the one you're with the best". Excuse me, but when did this turn into a Jimmy Eat World album? Beyond my absolute hatred of the use of the second person in music, this brings out a major break with the band's past, as Heaven is Whenever shows Finn moving away from the third-person tales of former songs. Rather, on this album he is directly in the songs, as first-person narrative dominates. Combined with the occasional second-person bits, it sounds that, rather than telling stories, Finn is now speaking directly to the audience, trying to connect with them. When he references Pavement on the dreadful ballad We Can Get Together, it isn't that they're a good band. It's that he likes them, and you like them, so won't you like him too? It's cloying, and it comes off as a desperate and disturbing attempt to keep ahold of the fanbase they've built as they abandon the very things they did to build up that following.
This is not to say that the album has no redeeming qualities. The Weekenders is a highlight, combining the now-requisite backing vocals with a wonderfully-delivered rollicking chorus which seems to feature the horse-racing clairvoyant from Chips Ahoy!, and the chorus is so wonderful that it takes multiple listens to even find the verses, which drift aimlessly along over The Edge's best atmospherics, disappearing from memory as soon as they end. The absolute highlight is Barely Breathing, a minor-key staccato affair featuring Finn's best spitting over the top as the band breaks loose. But even this is not perfect, as the random clarinet solo halfway through adds nothing to the song, save to serve as a good point to stop listening before the completely unnecessary and dismissable minute-long outro begins. Maybe I've been spoiled, but in the past they just made the whole 'playing music' thing seem so effortless that I'm rather shocked by the fact that even the minimal triumphs present on Heaven is Whenever are so hard-won. I never really thought about it when it was happening, but now that it's done, I'd love to be spoiled again.
And now let us no longer mince words: the middle of the album sucks more than a Brendan Fraser starring vehicle. The Smidge and Rock and Roll Problems both try to bring back the familiar sounds of past albums, but even musically, the band just sounds awkward, and Finn's vocals on the latter track especially are among the worst he has ever penned, and the delivery only highlights this. The band then moves into the aforementioned We Can Get Together, whose minimal goodwill is completely destroyed by the outro that takes up almost half the runtime of the song, and features a disjointed backing vocal chorus which merits the burning of the masters on its own, though nothing the band does really makes a case for saving them. And then we get Hurricane J, so generic a song that all it does for me is make me think of Jessie's Girl, hardly a masterpiece of artistic achievement (This is understatement, in case you're in the slow class). This is the song the band chose to play to a national television audience on The Colbert Report last week, as damning a sentence as I can think of. On an album full of mediocrity and worse, The Hold Steady seem to believe that the worst of the batch is what they want to put out there. Going forward, this seems like a rather bad omen.
Closer A Slight Discomfort, while still moving away from past glories, at least leaves the listener with some fond memories of the album, as it goes through a slow build over its first five minutes until it climaxes in chiming keyboard and pulsating drumming surrounded by a massive wall of sound, and it is only after it all fades out that you are struck with the realization that at the climax of the album, where everything should be peaking, Craig Finn, center of The Hold Steady, has checked out and left you with an instrumental coda. For a band whose reputation was built on Finn's firecracker persona, this is outright shocking. From here on out, the odds are the bandwagon will only get bigger, but while I still intend to watch from afar, I have officially left it.