It’s one of those rock n’ roll moments everybody needs to go through; woman or man, girl or boy, there’s no forgetting the experience as the hairs rise in unison across your body, adrenaline mainlines and you go down with a serious case of involuntary joy.
We’re talking, of course, about the first time you hear The Hold Steady’s Chips Ahoy, the opening track of their 2006 album Boys And Girls In America, an epic which crossed Springsteen with the Sex Pistols and came out smiling on the other side despite the whole mess that alchemy could’ve left us with.
There have been moments since where it seemed that their Kerouacian takes on middle class, middle aged excess and its consequences had a limited shelf life, particularly when lynchpin-keyboardist Franz Nicolay quit in 2010.
Further worries built up over time as singer Craig Finn built a solo career, but Nicolay returned to the fold in 2016. Open Door Policy is the sextet’s eighth album and, unlike the characters that get habitually shaken out on their records, the band appear to be in the best of health.
Finn and co. have spent a career prying at America’s seedier underbelly, their Joes either powerless and lost or on a make which never comes. Not much has changed here even though it was written pre-pandemic, the gristle still, they reckon, ‘songs and stories explore power, wealth, mental health, technology, capitalism, consumerism, and survival’.
Even the most hi-octane party animals eventually run out of road however, with the small town emigree on Lanyards leaving a place where, ‘There was nothing but the hum of the locusts’, for the west coast before getting entwined and then lost with an OD’ing friend, the conclusion a stark hospital wake-up call whilst, ‘The doctor said he only wants/To help me make some better decisions’.
You can’t mope about for too long though can you, you killjoy? On Spices the gang are all back in town, or at least Finn and yet another dangerous liaison, the story arcing out from clumsy hook-up to glorious, rollercoaster night high on brass and a typically rough and ready chorus, the relapse conditions, ‘…wild like the ocean/And the ocean is violent and vast’.
Musically the formula sounds refreshed, but its roots are still in classic 20th century Americana; the road, the bar with the three-foot stage, jamming out. There are some variations which will come as annoyance or relief depending on just how into this thing you are; the Steely Dan-isms of closer Hanover Camera and the soulful quiet-loud and Rhodes of Me & Magdalena are less worldly wise but offer just the right sort of comedown.
Lyrically the chase isn’t always central either, Heavy Covenant an undersold gospel tale of finding inspiration in people rather than something which comes measured out, while on The Prior Procedure capitalism hears but never listens.
A blackjack wheel of people, places, vices and noise; this has always been Hold Steady country, and never more does it come raining down than on the side one, track ones and the time when the natural energy is there before the other stuff kicks in.
It’s not Chips Ahoy, but opener The Feelers is a bullseye; punk poetry, lost souls, stretched desolation and bombast inked in like the outline of oh-my-god-what-did-I-get-done-last-night. A song about faith in beginnings, it’s a shot of regret, with a chaser of scuzzed up hope.
The familiar tales leave new hangovers: on Open Door Policy, The Hold Steady keep them coming, but these days they know their limit, even if it’s a line in the sand to sometimes be crossed anyway.