in a semi-recent NME interview, neo-new wavers the Bravery stated with comfortable brazenness that “The point of rock �n’ roll in the first place was dance music.” It’s a common take—rock �n’ roll is fun, freewheeling, raucous, (other All Music Guide-suggested adjective)—but comments like this also disregard the potency of history. There was a time that America couldn’t get Elvis from the waist down, and in 2005, 50 Cent does a Spin interview in which he claims that “Candy Shop” is okay for kids because they might take it literally, a ridiculous comment because A) a surprising amount of 11-year olds probably understand the song, B) a surprising amount of parents probably aren’t really paying attention, and C) the commodifying spirits realized that the hip-swivel/fellatio-metaphor thing “moves units.” In short, the Bravery were kind of right, but crucially, they say rock “in the first place” and not now; they’re just double dipping into something that, while once fresh, has since been accepted and neutered for the market.

Dan Bejar a.k.a. Destroyer said it pretty well in “The Sublimation Hour” from Streethawk: A Seduction: “don’t spend your life conceiving that the widows won’t get sick of their grieving �til everyone walks out, hey isn’t that what rock �n’ roll’s all about, princess? Confess your bloated self, willful and indignant in the face of somebody’s lore.” What we get here is a history, and a history on loop, the only thing that defines the movement is its reaction against what preceded it. It wouldn’t be new to say that rock is dead—and that’s an issue that I can’t really serve here—but if it is, there’s still something wonderfully morbid about how often we tamper with the corpse. Behold our cultural necrophilia: every era bears a new youth, each spitting in the face of the last, assuming its own snotty brand of indiscretion and apathy to be unique, even though all we really get is a blurred recapitulation. “Positive Jam,” the opening track of the Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me took this as a conceit, not a revelation: decade after decade, kids can barely keep their eyes open, getting trashed, getting ignored, and getting bored.

Immediately, there was pathos and despair, but there was also vivacity and intelligence. In form, it was like a scrappy, post-90’s version of classic rock, but its vision was more abstract. The lyrical and sonic architecture resonated with the stereotypical notions of rock �n’ roll’s intent as something impassioned, rebellious, comedic, and dangerous—forming a firm daisy chain with sex and drugs—but it also got some critical distance, some rearview glances at the horrifying/tender fuck-ups whose superhero alter-egos formed the tidy images of “Living on a Prayer” or “Jack and Diane.” If some think rock is about blood going to the hips, the Hold Steady let it go from heart to head, publicly and willfully positing themselves as a “smart-rock” band, and not smart like intellectual or arty, but smart like we think because we care, making music unusually conscious of the trappings of its own genre.

Most people didn’t know what to do with Almost Killed Me. Flailing around in the collective consciousness, it received awkward praise as a witty album about “powders and pills” that reached just over its shoulder for huge riffs and sometimes got pretty bitter, skewering the clever kids for being overly self-conscious while also lamenting the high-octane no-future verve of the hardest partiers—Almost Killed Me wore both those faces, but miraculously, did it simultaneously.

The Hold Steady aren’t a retro band. They’re a revision, a more intelligent, more obtuse version of the music its members were weaned on. Singer/guitarist/wordsmith Craig Finn: “Growing up in the Midwest, on an average Friday night in high school, you spent four to five hours of a six-hour night in the car. I think about radio. I moved to New York four and half years ago, and radio plays zero part in my life now, but when I got my car, the day I turned 16, my life was wide open. There wasn’t really alternative rock radio back then, there was just classic rock. It wasn’t really like you were making a choice, it wasn’t like �dude, I just love classic rock.’ You could get into alternative and punk rock, but classic rock was the base. In car, you had KQRS: Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Led Zepplin, Boston. It was just constantly filtering through your brain. When the Hold Steady started, classic rock was just ground zero.” Drummer Bobby Drake: “it just makes sense. You’re not kidding yourself.”

In the years between, the “pop” elements that tailored those songs for Minnesota radio got erased; the Hold Steady’s song structures forsake formula for the sake of the story, there aren’t sing-along choruses (well, one), the lyrics are verbose and clever, and melody is mostly absent—Finn’s delivery is infinitely more akin to a shouty, sloppy take on hip-hop than Robert Plant or Bon Scott. The good times aren’t without their sour aftertaste—for each drink-raising and fist-pumping line, you’d have to concede to chilling couplets like “she got strung out on the scene and she got scared when it got druggy, the way the whispers bit like fangs in the last hour of the party.”

Separation Sunday tells the story of Halleluiah and Charlemagne, two kids that spend some time spiraling through the country high as hell, meeting people, forgetting people they met, losing their own trail, incurring the kind of soulful damage that defines “bittersweet.” Charlemagne gets lost in a pile of cocaine, and when Halleluiah makes it back, she’s weighed down with disease, exhaustion, and confusion. With nowhere else to go, she returns to the Church she abandoned for the illustrious “scene” in the first place, Classic Rock Salvation. The details are drawn with the clarity of a poet: Holly is a Kate Bush-loving skate video-watching don’t-look-back sweetly fucked up kind of hoodrat girl, beautiful partially because of her utter frailty. Charlemagne seems wilder, more shadowed, stumbling around in sweatpants in the middle of the afternoon, drinking gin from a jam jar in the emergency room. Anyone who paid attention to Almost Killed Me will recognize the kids, because they were there: the story of Separation Sunday happens at the same time, like, as Craig Finn said, “blowing up one small part of a big painting.” The precision of the cross-referencing is enthralling; the Hold Steady Story outlined on Almost Killed Me feels more fleshed out in light of the developments of Separation Sunday.

There’s a gorgeous, ghastly feeling in the way Holly and Charlemagne carry on. With so much uncertainty in their futures, they hit everything just a little too hard a little too often, trying to override the anticipated regret and the secret knowledge that what they’re doing is a stopgap measure for their fears of the world, not a solution. All parties involved are wrapped in a kind of mythic false confidence whose transparency is pathetic and acute, especially when they reach the nadir of their travels directionless, scrounging for food, and in physical decay. Separation Sunday embraces their insecurities all the way to the endgame; if you think Holly’s tearful admissions—“youth services always find a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little messed up teenage life”—are all hot showers and hangovers to the cyclic grandeur of sin, repent, and repeat, you forget that she’s grasping at straws, that she kicks the Opiate of the Individual to ride the Opiate of the Masses, another ordering logic to keep her calm, directed, and carried on by something other than her own heart.

Even without the conceptual link, Separation Sunday is huge compared to Almost Killed Me: the sound palate, the production, and the texture completely blow its predecessor out of the water, not to mention that the coherency and consistency of the album’s robust narrative that, in 2005, feels both out of fashion and weirdly refreshing (the most readily available comparisons are recent day-in-the-life story-arc records like the Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come for Free or the Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee). Guitarist Tad Kubler noted that, even after nearly a month in the studio compared to the six days spent on Almost Killed Me, “we spent a lot of time putting it together as a record. I think sequencing albums is a really lost art. I think this one works as a whole album, rather than just ten or eleven songs thrown together.”

Normally, Biblical tones chafe a little, but here it’s an important device for a few reasons. People like the Bible for its veracity; the history of humanity has been cursed with the same shortcomings since civilization’s dawn—they’re what we dub “human.” There’s a moment of clarity to Gideon’s otherwise addled logic at the analogical induction that “if small town cops are like swarms of flies, and blackened foils like boils and hail, then I’m pretty sure I’ve been through this before” (it’s like he’s scribbling it on the side of his Styrofoam AA coffee cup). Like bible stories, Separation Sunday is a sprawling reiteration of time-tested betrayals, fruitless wanderings, tragedies, and lessons; Charlemagne and Halleluiah get caught up with dealers masked as saviors, reborn in a manger of shady kids and Black & Tans, and baptized in nitrous oxide.

Holly’s return to the Church is treated like a resurrection—striking, but surrounded by a muddled feeling of meaning yet to settle. “The priest just kinda laughed. The deacon caught a draft. She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass.” It’s quite a beautiful moment, but incomplete without the line that ends the album: “Holly was a sexy mess; she looked strung out but experienced, so we all got kind of curious.”

In a way, that’s the beauty of the Hold Steady, and why Finn’s lyricism is so unusual; it takes heaps of youth’s trash and piles it into gilded mountains, jamming rarefied realms with the vernacular, trumpeting a note that causes the whole messy sphere of adolescence to vibrate with sympathy and meaning beyond its surfaces. It offers rock music for the post-classic rock era a poetry bent on playing with its own circuitous history, rather than destroying or shying away from it. “I met William Butler Yeats, Sunday Night Dance Party, 1988. At first, I thought it was William Blake. We mix our own mythologies, we push them out through PA systems. We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen. I’m not saying we could save you, but we could take you to a place where you could save yourself.” It conjures messy memories of messy kids who streak the skies of suburban cities like roman candles, awe-inspiring, but terrifying, indelible, but impermanent.

Dan Bejar of Destroyer had also once called his own work a “love/hate relationship with its own medium,” and, in a way, the same could be said of Separation Sunday. It acknowledges and relishes in the hilarious typicality of invoking Catholic struggle in a story about rock �n’ roll kids, but it subverts the blindness of faith with a self-consciousness that permeates almost any work of intelligence. The existence of Separation Sunday in 2005 will strike a lot of people as hackneyed, dated, or, at worst, an ironic, self-reflexive gesture. In the last several years, it seems to have become a mortal sin to listen to rock music as if it were the gospel, but we’re forgetting that the whole movement is a performance; sure, there might be a set of human truths, but Separation Sunday isn’t trying to shout, or even whisper them.

By the time Holly and Charlemagne were old enough to drive, “rock” had retreated into smaller, antagonistic camps, setting a scene in which R.E.M., the Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, and Def Leppard coexisted awkwardly under the banner of a single word. The Hold Steady documents their myth; by offering words of solace for their fragmented era, it serves as a beautifully shameless rebellion against rock’s backlash. Separation Sunday though, like engaging music of any kind, provides something for the heart, mind, and body; it’s so unabashedly touching, fun, and fucking exciting that it’s hard to stutter through any reason to hold out against them.


By: Mike Powell
Published on: 2005-05-09
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