In 2008, Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn sang, “The kids at the shows/They’ll have kids of their own” on “Stay Positive.” And now they do.
The Hold Steady’s fans and members have grown up and Finn’s characters have grown with them. On new album “Open Door Policy,” the characters still pop pills and drink beers in the sweet part of the city. But they’re different people and insist you know that. On “Spices,” a track with both the doom and triumph of touchstones such as Springsteen and the Replacements, Finn sings, “But she wants to make it clear/That she’s done with all that other stuff/Sick of all the drama club/Tired of all the talking drugs.”
“As I get older, older people become more interesting to me,” Finn said. “A lot of the people on the early Hold Steady records are like 20. Now they are in their mid 30s. If you look at the old Hold Steady records, there’s a lot of partying. Look at this record and there’s a lot of mental health. Those are two sides of the same coin.”
Finn knows a certain contingent of fans obsess over his lyrics (with good reason — they have more in common with Raymond Carver stories than AC/DC puns). He makes constant references to past songs, but he doesn’t see his characters as part of a unified scene.
“I think about that (idea), but I think about it less than some people,” he said with a laugh. “I will sometimes come to a line and think, ‘OK, this is going to be a reward for the people who listen super closely.’ I have heard theories with charts that say, ‘This song on the fourth album references back to this song on the second album and then that relates to the third song on the third album.’ I’m like, ‘Man, you lost me.’”
Finn spends fewer hours trying to link characters and more time building songs around themes. For “Open Door Policy,” he looked at his characters’ fresh adulthood in the modern world. While the band had put in 90% of the work on LP before the pandemic, plenty of contemporary dread and blood show up here.
“Things I was thinking about in 2019 were, well, mental health, but also income inequality,” he said. “I sort of have this idea that if ‘Open Door Policy’ was a movie, the poster tagline would be, ‘Power, wealth and mental health.”
He says he didn’t want to make the Oliver Stone version of that movie but maybe the Ang Lee one. To help him get that tone, the musicians balanced big rock hooks with keyboard parts, brushed drums, groovy guitar lines and a lot of horns. The album begins with Franz Nicolay’s sparse piano and Finn almost whispering words on “The Feelers”; it’s the kind of cut that would typically close a Hold Steady record.
“Craig proposed the track listing with ‘The Feelers’ first and my first thought was, ‘Wow, that’s an unusual choice,’” Nicolay said — the keyboardist spent half a decade with the band early on and his return in 2016 helped the group recapture the dynamic feel of those first few LPs. “But it announces the kind of record this will be. It’s like a portal you have to go through to access the rest of the record.”
This time, the Hold Steady closes with an almost indie rock-jazz hybrid (maybe Spoon does Steely Dan?). The song, “Hanover Camera,” shows off an incredible amount of restraint with Finn singing, “At certain speeds we all feel insecure.” That’s not a sentiment 20-year-olds or the band in the early days, living through some massive nights, would ever express. Now it fits.
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