I adored The Hold Steady in my twenties. The band had three different focal points – guitarist Tad Kubler was a classic rock riff machine, emulating the bar band rock of Thin Lizzy. Vocalist Craig Finn was inspired by hip hop, weaving interlocking narratives of Catholic teenagers in sin and redemption in Minneapolis. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay added an extra layer to their sound, his piano and organ drawing comparisons to Springsteen’s E Street Band.
The Hold Steady peaked with three great records in the 2000s; 2005’s Seperation Sunday featured their densest narratives, 2006’s Boys and Girls in America was their most accessible, while 2008’s Stay Positive was their most eclectic. Nicolay left the band before 2010’s Teeth Dreams, and I lost interest – without Nicolay, and as Finn moved from shouting to singing, they lost some of their identity and critics started comparing them disparagingly to Weezer and Counting Crows.
Nicolay rejoined The Hold Steady in 2016. Thrashing Thru the Passion is their first album since his return, and it’s been hailed as a return to form. It clocks in at a brief thirty six minutes, and it feels less conceptually ambitious than their early records, a collection of songs rather than a grand statement. The second half of the album will be already familiar to fans, already released as advance singles.
Despite the lack of thematic weight, Thrashing Thru the Passion is fast-moving and fun. Finn’s still playing with words, throwing in rapid-fire cultural references like this couplet from opener ‘Denver Haircut’.
On a spaceship shaped like a Gibson Marauder
The pilot kinda looked like Kirk Hammett
Elsewhere the band sound great, whether they’re crunching rock and roll like ‘Confusion in the Marketplace’ and ‘Star 18’, or drifting closer to Van Morrison territory than you might expect with Nicolay’s classy piano and horns of ‘Blackout Sam’.
It doesn’t feel as significant as their earlier masterpieces, but Thrashing Thru The Passion is a tight, fun record that captures more of The Hold Steady’s past glories than you might expect.