The Hold Steady are a rock band with two main strengths: they are America's current reigning bar band and they are lead by Craig Finn, our premiere lyrical mythologizer. His lyrics can often be as blunt as they are poignant, but accepting Finn at face value leaves one appreciating that he is one of the most ambitious lyricists working today. The irony is his ambitious undertaking has been to create a fully-realized universe of characters that drunkenly stumble through a haze of partying, hooking up, searching for religion, and summarizing what they've learned on hungover Sunday afternoons. Or, as Finn might call it, a "unified scene." (Not for nothing is that phrase the band's Twitter handle.)
Their second album, Separation Sunday, was a loose concept album about lapsing drug-addled Catholics starring characters that continued to pop up in their next two albums. Boys and Girls in America opened up the stories to include less religious partying, more heartbreak, and rebirth; it remains the band's most impressive work. Stay Positive varied the band's sonic textures a bit and hit and missed in equal portions. Now, without keyboardist Franz Nicolay (who left the band prior to this album), the Hold Steady turn their eyes to the skies, declare that Heaven is Whenever and keep on rockin' their way through a world of starry-eyed innocents and glassy-eyed veterans.
Unlike their previous albums, Heaven is Whenever doesn't start with a rock-radio-ready lead single. Instead, it opens with a mid-tempo number, "The Sweet Part of the City," replete with steel guitar and sounding more southern rock than bar band. It's an unexpected introduction, but indicative of the continually-brightening mood in the Hold Steady discography to date. Whereas before his characters slumped into an alcoholic Hell and barely survived to rehabilitate in the morning ("How a Resurrection Really Feels,") lately they've been more reflective and spending more time thinking about Heaven than sliding into Hell, no less introspective, but more content and less catastrophic in their social lives. Perhaps it's the inevitable maturation as Finn grows older and wiser with each album while the oft-referenced "kids of today" continually stay the same age. Finn isn't telling the stories of jaded youths anymore; they've survived to grow up, learned their lessons, and now he's overflowing with advice to the next generations on how to make it out alive themselves.
So "The Sweet Part of the City" is nostalgic instead of exuberant. It's followed by what would have been an excellent lead-off rocker, "Soft in the Center," where Finn repeatedly asserts, "I'm just trying to tell the truth, kid." One of those outstanding Hold Steady sing-along choruses follows, with the backup singers warmly chanting in full harmony, "You can't love every girl. / You'll get the ones you love the best. / You can't get every girl. / You'll love the ones you get the best." This is where the Hold Steady transcends the potential clunkiness of the bar-band sound and reach for the euphoric joy of a man who's learned just enough to finally be happy with his life and not drown his potential with sorrows.
This is where the Hold Steady, and Craig Finn, are at in the world these days. "We Can Get Together" proves to be the de facto title track, floating over a blissed-out and peaceful light rock track that almost sounds like Counting Crows. It's a track that references Cheap Trick, Hüsker Dü, Meat Loaf, Todd Rundgren & Utopia in the lyrics, eventually concluding that, "Heaven is whenever we can get together." In the sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, and not-necessarily-in-that-order history of the Hold Steady, it's a surprisingly affecting sentiment.
Those still looking for the familiar Hold Steady rock will find it on tracks like "Rock Problems," "Hurricane J," and "Our Whole Lives." Heaven is Whenever was recorded without Nicolay, whose often epic piano was central to many of the Hold Steady's anthemic highlights, so the guitars do take center stage more often, especially when they're rocking. He is certainly missed, however, as none of the rockers quite ascends the heights of previous standouts like "Chill Out Tent," which positively rippled with Nicolay's ecstatic piano. The album isn't without the occasional keyboards, however, showing up to accentuate the dramatic moments. "A Slight Discomfort" is this album's entry in the band's tradition of down-tempo, high-drama balladry that usually is the highlight of any given Hold Steady album. If it suffers from the absence of Nicolay's transcendant piano dramatics, substitute pianist Dan Neustadt (who, like Nicolay, is an alum of the World/Inferno Friendship Society) to find his own brand of theatrics by track's end.
Heaven is Whenever is another successful entry from America's reigning bar band, while also representing an intriguing new step in their career. The band is evolving. Finn is maturing as a philosophical beat poet, continuing his development as a paternal influence for the kids of tomorrow. The grand tradition of rock and roll lives to see another day, Wherever this band goes next, they seem sure to share a little slice of their own heaven whenever they get there.