The Hold Steady: Heaven Is Whenever

Written by May 4th, 2010 at 10:17 am

The Hold Steady
Heaven Is Whenever
Vagrant
Rating: ★★★★☆

“Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Lock your bedroom door/And listen to your records”

Here’s an opening statement for you. Craig Finn is arguably the best lyricist of the 2000s. Of course, the key word in that claim is “arguably,” like the type of argument you would have with friends over a beer or two with each one of you espousing about your favorite songwriter from Springsteen to Dylan to McCartney—each one of you sure you were right and adding piece after piece of evidence in the form of selected couplets that really tell it how it is, man, and, you know, really get at the human condition.

If Finn himself were to take part in such a discussion, he probably wouldn’t pick anyone you would’ve guessed. He’d probably pick a rapper you’d never heard of. “A lot of hip-hop really inspires me…Hip-hop is so much about lyrics, and as a lyricist it’s hard not to be inspired by it,” Finn told Pitchfork Media. “Even as a 33-year-old rock fan, there are releases that are consistently blowing my mind—in underground hip-hop, especially.”

So here’s another statement about the main songwriter behind the rock band The Hold Steady: Craig Finn is arguably more of a rapper than a singer. He does not so much sing in the traditional sense of vocal trills and extended notes as speak words along a melody line, and like fellow Minnesota-raised lyricists Atmosphere and Brother Ali—two of Finn’s favorite rappers—the man puts on for his hometown. As he tells the listener somewhere in the middle of “Soft in the Center”, the second track on The Hold Steady’s latest album, Heaven is Whenever, “I know bodies of water freeze over/I’m from a place with lots of lakes/But sometimes they got soft in the center/And the center is a dangerous place.”

That track showcases Finn’s ability to craft a chant-along-chorus, the kind that has earned The Hold Steady the title of being the best bar band in the world. He gives the sage advice, “You can’t get every girl/You get the ones love the best/You won’t get every girl/You love the ones you get the best.”

But Finn can also do complicated. On the standout track, “We Can Get Together”, Finn weaves a web that somehow connects Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” to the band, Utopia, as well as name-dropping Hüsker Dü, only to then translate the band’s name in the very next line (“She said Hüsker Dü got huge, but they started in St. Paul/Do you remember ‘Makes No Sense At All’?”). Finn continues to string along a collection of songs dealing with love and heaven, culminating in the soaring refrain that gave the album its name.

“Heaven is whenever we can get together.”

Here’s one last statement. This album deals with the specific. It deals in stories about 22 year-old waitresses and weekend trysts up at the reservoir. It deals in platitudes, both heart-warming (“I don’t want you to settle/I want you to grow”) and otherwise (“Forget everything I showed you this summer/You’re too hard already/You’ll only get harder”).

Most strikingly, it deals with Finn—or at least, the persona he’s constructed for this album. Every line seems to come straight from the mouth of that guy right over there, you know, the buddy of your buddy—the one you always wanted to ride around with while he told his stories but never got the chance to. Well, here it is. Are you game?

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