Published Aug 13, 2019It's been five years since the last Hold Steady album and 15 years since the first, and things have changed a bit. To spare the details, the Hold Steady are not really operating like a typical band these days, and it follows that they also haven't made a typical album.
Thrashing Thru the Passion, the seventh record from the Brooklyn-based band, is part studio album, part singles compilation. Half of its ten songs have already been released as Bandcamp singles, dating back to 2017, and another couple were shared in the leadup to its release date. That means that devoted fans — and fans of the Hold Steady are nothing if not devoted — have already heard most of this record, piecemeal, over the last couple years. This runs a bit of a risk: An album of songs that people have already heard could garner some muted reaction, especially if it sounds like just a bunch of singles slapped together in new packaging.
Thankfully, the Hold Steady's experiment has come out as a cohesive, unified whole, sounding like the satisfying product of one great, fun studio session. They haven't set out to recreate the rousing, thematic triumphs of 2005's Separation Sunday or 2006's Boys and Girls in America, but they have recaptured a lot of the magic that makes them so cherished by a certain sect of rock'n'roll fans. Given the circumstances, it's a result you could likely only get from a band that's not only deeply comfortable with each other and with who they are, but also unencumbered by pressure to prove themselves with a grand statement.
With the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay for the first time since 2008's Stay Positive, singer Craig Finn has said "this six-piece lineup of the Hold Steady is the best band we've ever been." It's clear that they are invigorated, and Thrashing Thru the Passion might be the most fun and carefree Hold Steady record. You get big sing-alongs out of "Denver Haircut" and "Confusion In the Marketplace," and especially the exultant "Entitlement Crew."
For the first time, Finn finds himself competing with his own solo effort (I Need a New War) for the best Craig Finn album of the year. Lyrically, Thrashing Thru the Passion can sometimes read like Mad Libs: The Hold Steady Edition (looking at you, "Star 18"), but it's a symptom of a style that works.
These songs evoke an assortment of characters — a washed comedian, a wayward traveller, a group of disengaged partygoers, a doomed mobster — who tend to be down on their luck and feeling like they're wasting their lives away. But there's also a sense of movement — in time and space — that suggests that while things are strange and messy and definitely not ideal, there's more on the horizon.
As for the Hold Steady themselves, is this record a return to their early greatness? Let's maybe leave that for the legion of dedicated disciples to argue about, but at the very least it's bound to hit all the familiar pleasure centres of Hold Steady fans. Of course, if this were any other band we're talking about, they'd be at the top of their game. (Frenchkiss)