The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn comes across like an Americanized version of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, taking his audience hostage with brilliant, relentless ranting about drinking, drugs and religion, but also about coming of age among jags of AC/DC guitar. He never tires of the nuance between hormonal urge and emotional need, or the distortions that come with intoxication. As Finn puts it at the album’s onset, “Most nights were crystal clear but tonight it’s like it’s stuck between stations on the radio.”
The Hold Steady’s third album (its title copped from Kerouac’s observation through On the Road protagonist Sal Paradise that “boys and girls in America have such a sad time together”) may be another journey into young America’s blurry identity battle, but the band itself—tight, focused and firing from all points—is never in doubt. It built its sound on the tough two-guitar attack of Finn and fellow former Lifter Puller guitarist Tad Kubler. Here, they add orchestration while keyboardist Franz Nicolay expands his role, providing E Street Band piano flourishes to most tracks, while channeling Uriah Heep-like organ for “Same Kooks” and settling on dinner by piano and candlelight for understated power ballad “First Night.”
The gentler surroundings encourage Finn to calm down and sing with a lilt of compassion. He’s a smartass by nature, skilled with language and able to convey the pathetic nature of a situation while retaining the gallows humor that comes with seeing a scene played out too many times. Whether he’s paying a mixed compliment (“She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend”), explaining his attraction to pharmaceuticals (“We started recreational, it ended up all medical”) or capturing the beauty that aches in the permanently lost (“She was golden with barlight and beer / She slept like she’d never been scared”), Finn flips lines with his middle finger fully extended. There’s compassion in his heart, but don’t you dare provoke him.
He discusses poet John Berryman on opening cut “Stuck Between Stations,” but he could be talking about himself—“She said, you’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life, and they didn’t, so he died.” Finn knows a rock band can’t rely solely on a smart lyricist. The cut-out bin is littered with tone-deaf but capable poets. So Boys and Girls in America never settles for the complacent. “Stuck Between Stations” begins quoting Pavement’s “A Date With Ikea” before exploding into larger arena rock. “Hot Soft Light” locomotes with a Thin Lizzy shuffle. “Southtown Girls” is heartland rock down to its Eagles-style harmonies. And “First Night” drips with the musical sentiment of senior prom. Nothing is off-limits and the rest of the band chimes in occasionally with backing vocals that give these dire situations a festive air. Two kids who overdose on drugs at a rock festival in western Massachusetts, meet and have sex in the “Chillout Tent,” are ignored because “the other kids were mostly in comas.” Then they never see each other again. But Finn remembers them. He’ll be writing about them for ages.