"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 of misbehavior. No, these are songs about the wages of sin and the consequences of reckless living. And that's never been truer than on Stay Positive, in which the parties turn bloodier than ever and people start getting hurt. "Man we has some massive nights," Finn reminisces in "Joke About Jamaica," but his memories quickly become much darker, recalling a time "back before those two kids died."
Sounds serious? It is, and The Hold Steady knows it. After all, the band members are all well into their thirties by now, and they've been playing in bars and clubs long enough to know the kinds of devastating, self-destructive behavior that goes on there. This isn't a record that merely chronicles bad behavior; it accepts responsibility for it. More than anything, it's an album about growing up. As the shadow of mortality looms over the wild nights and big parties, Finn and his bandmates come to grips—before our very ears—with what it means to be grown-ups.
"Because the kids at the shows will have kids of their own," Finn laughs on the title track. It's a thought that culminates in the closing number, "Slapped Actress," when he considers the fact that many of his fans look to him for answers and come out to the shows for comfort and community—sobering thoughts that prompt Finn to vow, solemnly, that his "hands will hold steady" as he reaches out to accept responsibility.
But of course, responsibility is tough, and sometimes it gets under Finn's skin. In "Lord, I'm Discouraged," the barn-burning bluesy number at the center of the album, Finn reflects on the violence and the loss that surrounds him. He acknowledges that he's "no angel" himself, and then turns to address the Divine with his supplication:
Lord, I'm sorry to question your wisdom
But my faith has been wavering
Won't you show me a sign?
Let me know that you're listening?
It's a humble, earnest moment—so how does one reconcile it with that line from the first song? Perhaps you don't; it's difficult to shake the feeling that Finn is doing some soul-searching here, that he doesn't know the answers to the big questions he's posing, that his role as a public figure has caused him to evaluate his life and the world around him in ways that don't always seem comforting. And at times, these questions lead him to some wrong conclusions—as on that first song. Elsewhere, though, it leads him to surprising faith; "I was a skeptic at first but these miracles work," he sings on "Yeah Sapphire," and his joy is contagious.
Unfortunately, that's not the sentiment that seems to win out in the end. The final song, "Slapped Actress," essentially repeats the mantra of the opening song, only this time it's in the form of a metaphor that compares life to a movie, and us to the directors. "Yeah, we make our own movies," he asserts at the song's triumphant conclusion, and, of course, it's not something that Christian listeners will agree with. But art isn't about agreeing or disagreeing; it's about wrestling with big questions and tough topics, about listening to others with an open heart and a generous spirit.
Surely there's much wisdom to be gleaned from Craig Finn; few songwriters are better at portraying the sadness and grief that come from selfish living. On Stay Positive, he wrestles with responsibility in a way that's genuinely inspiring. And as usual, there's a dialogue with the Divine that runs through the whole thing, seeming to indicate that while Finn isn't a man who has everything figured out, he's certainly a man of some kind of faith. That's one of the many things that makes The Hold Steady not just a great band, but an essential one—they're working through issues of faith not with cynicism or hipster irony, but with sincerity and big hearts. If that's not reason to stay positive, I'm not sure what is.
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