Album review: The Hold Steady, ‘Heaven is Whenever’

Peter Chianca

What happened to Craig Finn? The Hold Steady frontman still isn’t singing, exactly, but he’s certainly emoting more than he has on the band’s previous albums. Add to his newfound vocal maturity some serious lyrical ambition and you have another winning release by one of the best rock ’n’ roll bands out there, period.

If The Hold Steady has had a weakness in the past, it’s an almost unerring sense of ironic detachment; sincerity has never been their strong suit. But that’s not always the case here: Finn, 38, seems less the winking observer of doomed youth and more the elder statesman wading into the trenches of their angst.

“Kid, you can’t kiss every girl,” he sings on “Soft in the Center.” “You gotta trust me on this one.” Even the troubled women that are a Hold Steady staple are thrown a line by the newly empathetic Finn and company: “I don’t want you to settle, I want you to grow,” he sings on “Hurricane J.”

The Hold Steady bombast is still present and accounted for; even if there’s nothing as observably anthemic as “Stuck Between Stations” or infectious as “Sequestered in Memphis,” tracks like “Rock Problems” still put Tad Kubler’s guitar right up front where it belongs. There’s no denying that the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay is noticeable; it’s hard not to miss flourishes like the harpsichord on “One for the Cutters” off “Stay Positive.”

Still, there’s musical growth here, too — compare the acoustic slow groove of album opener “The Sweet Part of the City” to the catchy but obvious swagger of the last album’s “Constructive Summer.” Branching out into matters of life and love beyond the stories of hopeless slackers suits the band well — they’re growing, and most assuredly not settling.

The Hold Steady, "Heaven is Forever," Vagrant Records, May 4.

Peter Chianca writes the Gatehouse Media music blog, Blogness on the Edge of Town.