In late June, culture critic/noted technophobe Lee Siegel declared in an issue of The New York Observer that fiction had "become culturally irrelevant." He criticized The New Yorker for being oppressive to creativity and book critics for imposing a self-conscious set of rules and regulations on fiction novels. He didn't come right out and say it, but with a headline like "Where Have All the Mailers Gone," he implicitly called the Great American Novel's time of death too. What does any of that have to do with rock 'n' roll?
Nothing, except when you're talking about The Hold Steady.
Over the past six years, The Hold Steady have pumped out five sprawling, character-driven, intertwined albums of boozy sing-along songs and recurring motifs. Staking their ground somewhere between Thin Lizzy and The Boss, they've managed to corner the market on indie-rock narrative fiction. In between "whoa-oh-oh" refrains and sweet keyboard breaks, singer/chief songwriter Craig Finn lays out stories about the inhabitants of his America — the hood-rats, the "clever kids," the junkies. In Finn's America, everyone is a lapsed Catholic, the Midwest stretches far beyond the Corn Belt and St. Paul is the capital of the known universe.
"I think [my America is] kinda idealized, or it's certainly exaggerated," Finn says by phone, about a month before leaving for tour. "A good storyteller doesn't adhere exactly to the truth. At least that's my feeling. I think that some of the things you try to tell the story with careen wildly between highs and lows. It's harder to get your point across."
Although the band ditched the whole "concept album" shtick after 2005's Separation Sunday and its story of a good Catholic girl gone bad (or something like that), they remain fiercely dedicated to the idea that telling stories is not just the province of books. It's a cliché at this point to compare the band to Bruce Springsteen, their obvious hero, but big, ballsy story songs are both artists' bread and butter, and both have a style of delivering those tales in a way that seems genetically engineered to pull at something familiar in their listeners. The difference is only in who those listeners are.
In a way, Finn and the others have managed to succeed at what so many aspiring English majors have only dreamed about: creating the Great American Novel — or, at least, its rock 'n' roll equivalent.
"Songwriting, people think of it as so confessional," Finn says. "But I think I was just trying to create something bigger that touches on how we all feel and emotions we all have had. It's supposed to be cinematic and dramatic."
Like On the Road and Catcher in the Rye did for previous generations, The Hold Steady's narratives manage to capture the zeitgeist of young people in America in that awkward late Gen X/early-Gen Y era. Except nobody expects songs like "Charlemagne in Sweatpants" and "Navy Sheets" will ever be taught in a high school class room.
But it isn't so much that they've made a single Great American Record. It's more like they've managed to piece together a Great American Discography by using — and some might say abusing — a string of characters and motifs, with a lexicon full of Hold Steadyisms over the span of their career. Even before the rise of @fakecraigfinn, a Twitter account collecting "Hold Steady lyrics that didn't quite make the cut," a Philadelphia newspaper was making drinking games based on the distinct and repetitive nature of the band's phrasing. (For example, you must drink if Finn uses the words "born again" or cleverly disparages clever people.)
"You get to the point of the song where you're using the same sentiment of something you said before," Finn explains. "By using the same exact line, you're saying the same thing but also kinda rewarding, or making an inside joke to, your longtime listeners."
Outside of Mountain Goats, who have dedicated a whopping 33 songs to songwriter John Darnielle's dysfunctional "Alpha couple," there aren't a ton of popular indie bands that maintain the kind of song-to-song, album-to-album continuity that Finn aspires to. Listening to a Hold Steady song is kind of like hearing your life sung back to you — that destructive relationship you were in, that party you probably shouldn't have been at, that time you got drunk on a water tower — only with the names and places changed, and, in the case of that time you got drunk on a water tower, the addition of a water tower.
"[Characters are] a kind of a luxury I've afforded myself." Finn says. "But I have deliberately kept it a little more obscured, just because it allows people to put their own lives into it a little more if you aren't telling people exactly who did what."
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