Heaven Is Whenever
Over the past few years The Hold Steady has worked their way into my playlists, starting as relative unknowns and climbing the ranks to comforting mainstays. I’ve come to see them as one of the hardest working, most intelligent and self-aware bands in indie rock. In many ways, I should probably even credit them for my interest in the genre. By 2008’s Stay Positive I became fully committed to the group, even now still breaking out the old album between reviews for a comforting taste of modern nostalgia. That being said, it pains me to write a review for their follow-up effort, Heaven Is Whenever.
So as you might have guessed, I’m going to join the masses and rag on The Hold Steady for what is undoubtedly the year’s biggest disappointment. Now don’t get me wrong, The Hold Steady still easily trumps most rock n’ roll acts out there, but for a band defining itself through continual evolution, Heaven Is Whenever is a significant step backwards. It’s as if with the departure of quirky mustached keyboardist Franz Nicolay earlier this year, songwriter Craig Finn spent all his time trying to retain the status quo and in turn forgot to take any risks.
I’ll concede though, the album starts off strong enough. After all, “The Sweet Part Of The City,” with its twangy southern style, could very well be that slow moving, scene-setting prelude to an engulfing narrative. The tune evokes imagery of the nightlife for a down and out renter living in the heart of the city who, with a little help from his friends and a bottle of wine, keeps his spirits high from day to day. But then “Soft In The Center” follows, and nothing really changes. In fact, over the next few tracks the music gets uncharacteristically simple, even turning out some very generic and uninspired classic rock riffage. It’s as if they’ve forgotten to write a body to the story, instead providing the same structure as their intros and conclusions rather than developing characters and feeding the story with sounds unique to each development.
Compounding matters, what once passed as lyrically profound now comes across tired and overdone. “The Weekenders” for example finds Finn drawing from his pretentious vocabulary, dropping words like “clairvoyance” without notable or particular effect. Even passages grounding lofty romances in realism (ie. circumstances are “not going to be like in a romantic comedy”) feel isolated and anecdotal rather than sincere. In one of my favourite tracks, “Hurricane Jesse,” the band actually recycles the title of their previous album. Like I said, enough with the continuity, it’s time for something new.
It’s only around the halfway point that things start turning around. While the first half of the record was missing that essential mystique synonymous with Stay Positive, the band manages to work some of it back in by including a blaring brass on “Our Whole Lives,” and a recurrent clarinet solo that comes to define “Barely Breathing.” For the last few tracks the band also eases up on trying to be THE all American rock group, instead returning to that indie inspired middle ground, restoring a sense of complexity.
But a few solid tracks still can’t save Heaven Is Wherever from feeling downright disappointing as a whole. I know I sound like a snobby, demanding critic, but there’s just no other way to frame it. But like I said, The Hold Steady still commands some rock solid fundamentals, and I’d rather listen to Heaven Is Whenever above a long list of other indie rock groups – I just have a hard time imagining choosing it over their existing discography.