"They come in for the feeding/Sit in stadium seating/They're holding their hands now/For the body and blood now." —from "Slapped Actress"
"We are our only saviors," sings Craig Finn on "Constructive Summer," the storming opener to his band's fourth album, Stay Positive. He delivers the words with a self-assured poise and sobriety, giving it all the force of a battle cry, or at least a great rock concert sing-along.
But for Christian listeners, the lyric is obviously a bit problematic. One might attempt to interpret it in a less troubling, non-spiritual way. Of course, we're talking about the band whose second album, Separation Sunday, was a concept record about a girl named Hallelujah who got mixed up with drugs and eventually had a dramatic encounter with Jesus Christ, culminating in a glorious, celebratory coda that's all about resurrection. Though unconventional, this is a band that obviously takes spiritual matters seriously, and their listeners do well to follow suit.
However, there's a lot more to Stay Positive than the self-idolizing line in the opening song. Over the course of four albums, The Hold Steady has proven to be a band that's willing to look at tough truths and go places where few others go. Their latest disc is arguably their most spiritually complicated and sophisticated set of songs yet. Sure, their sound is heavy on stomping barroom anthems and power chords, but just as they muddy the musical waters with some acoustic numbers and subtle experimentation, they also spike their lyrics with some prickly philosophical and theological exploration.
You might not pick up on that during the first listen because, well, most of their songs are about drugs and alcohol. But these aren't frat-boy anthems or celebrations ...1