Ever since the release of The Hold Steady’s debut Almost Killed Me all the way back in 2004, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler have both had different ideas of what the soul of the band should be. “Aging gracefully” could be one of the central lyrical themes of the band. But heeding their own advice, now that’s something the band have not always been able to pull off.
What made Finn’s songwriting so vital and downright essential in the early days of The Hold Steady was that he was relaying a message of warning to the younger indie-rock class to avoid the trappings that he, as an elder statesman, encountered in a not-so distant future.
Now with their eighth full length Open Door Policy, the band has teamed up with Finn’s producer and musical collaborator on his solo releases, Josh Kauffman, to take the next step further into the new era of the band.
After years apart, the band regained some steam when they decided to rejoin with longtime classic-era keyboardist Franz Nicolay to record a series of EPs in 2019 that would later be collected for their seventh full length album, Thrashing Thru the Passion.
This album was the first with their fully realized lineup — what Finn calls “The Hold Steady 3.0” — with both Nicolay and third guitarist Steve Selvidge adding their own specific attacks beyond Finn’s biting vocal delivery and Kubler’s fretboard heroics. The record was a welcome return to form filled with both rallying choruses and world-weary ballads that felt inspired from Finn’s fantastic run of solo records and added a new weapon in their arsenal for future beer-soaked gigs. Even “Massive Nights” need to address “Blackout Sam” desperately searching for his keys once the party is winding down.
With the opening track “The Feelers” it is clear that Open Door Policy would continue on this trajectory and be a more varied effort than their previous releases. It’s somber crawling piano and Pink Floyd style guitar solo break point to a level of assuredness in their maturity. The following song “Spices” brings the patented Finn fuzzy recall narration on a night of misplaced handoffs, drugs hidden in salt shakers and characters that mean well but are far beyond redemption. “When she starts rollin’ it’s wild like the ocean,” he sings in a classic turn, “and the ocean is violent and vast.”
In the standout “Lanyards,” Finn makes the choralation that whether it’s VIP status or intensive care, we need some sort of permission. “Hospital, security, everybody needs to see the right color wristband,” he sings.
The album maintains a consistent lean run and offers up the glue that usually makes The Hold Steady so strong. The interplay between guitar and piano, thundering drums and although there is no overarching concept of connected story, Finn’s story telling is in top form.
One of the band’s consistent pitfalls, however, is that there will always be one or two songs on recent albums that sees them chasing an impulse towards experimentation or a certain hook that pushes past catchy and into annoyance. This is not the band that should be indulging in these nuances. It’s like the audio equivalent of going pork-pie hat shopping. The Hold Steady’s skills are far from broken, so there’s no need in these unrealized fixes. Leave that for Wilco, boys! This time around they take a perfectly fine chorus on the song “Unpleasant Breakfast” and transform it into something torturous with high-pitched gang vocal “whew” that repeats every other beat like a packed rollercoaster spinning on a loop.
Another note is that Kaufman — who created lush worlds for Finn’s album I Need a New War — is the first producer to make the band brim with excitement again. But while the recording is dynamic, the treatment of Kubler and Selvidge’s guitars only leaves traces of their DNA and doesn’t really give you the full blown assault fans are treated to live with dimed out amps.
With Open Door Policy, The Hold Steady have no intention on recapturing the magic of the old days. After all, that kind of thinking was what they were warning us of all along.
Essential Tracks: “Spices,” “Lanyards” and “Heavy Covenant.”
Prerequisites: The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday, Craig Finn’s I Need a New War and Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy.