Waking Up Inside Bukowski’s Head
The Hold Steady are not an instant band. Craig Finn, vocalist/guitarist/barfly poet, speaks more than he sings, and shouts more than he speaks. On first listen, it’s often hard to get a handle on a melody or structure to these songs. But when you get The Hold Steady, it’s like suddenly seeing your own reflection in the tenth shotglass of the evening. They ply their trade in gruff Kerouac-rock about drugs and drinking, and occasionally fucking, but mainly just the drugs. Finn’s atonal voice shouldn’t work but it does, and once you get hold of the lyrics there’s no going back. The lyrics are the key to the entire sound — a sound of manly heartland rock guitars and stadium-filling keyboards, occasionally locking into euphoric grooves such as on the eruption at the end of ‘Knuckles’. Musically this has some interesting qualities, but is best appreciated when you’ve puzzled out what exactly Finn is yelling about and why exactly all those E-Street Band riff surges are popping off at this point: in the aforementioned song, it’s because the narrator reveals that he has not in fact just killed five men as we were previously led to believe, and therefore his partners refuse to call him ‘Sunny Delight’.
On ‘First Night’, ‘when they kiss they spit white noise’ churns out like a mantra as the music implodes around him. The rockers are raging and the ballads are heart-rending, lines like ‘hey citrus, hey liquor, I love it when you come together’ making you feel like just woke up inside Charles Bukowski’s head the day after the party ended. There’s something deeply ironic about the whole process of an album full of boogie-busting party-time hard rock that deals with teenage drug burnout and the inherent self-destruction of nights in the ‘Party Pit’.
Working backwards to their two previous albums as I did — the sublime Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday — the overwhelming abundance of pills in their oeuvre becomes clear. There’s a coherent narrative running through all three about characters getting fucked up on a cocktail of narcotics and Christianity in a fictionalised Minneapolis. Finn is a Lit graduate, and it shows. His clear-eyed stories of bleariness and bad decisions make the functional beautiful, and draw breathtaking poetry from the simplest of words and phrases, many of which repeat throughout the band’s work. It’s hard to analyse Finn’s songcraft without feeling like you’re plotting the development of a novel; and maybe you are. ‘Chillout Tent’ uses multiple narrators to create a vivid vignette of young druggie love that’s as disturbing as it is beautiful, borne aloft by shimmering female vocals and couplets like ‘their mouths were fizzy with the cherry cola, they had the privacy of bedsheets and all the other kids were mostly in comas.’
Simply put, The Hold Steady grab your face when it’s lying in the gutter and force you to look at the stars.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Richard O’Brien was born in Peterborough in 1990, and has been trying to escape ever since. He is currently still trying to get an education, and resides in a Lincolnshire village with his parents and his labradors with nautical names. He likes to act, listen to music, and write songs that will never be sung.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 4th, 2007.