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Praised by Rolling Stone as “America’s greatest bar band” more than ten years ago, The Hold Steady have only embraced this title recently — performing three-night residencies in cities in the US and UK. In addition to this, they’ve released standalone singles as opposed to recording and touring in the traditional sense. Five of these singles have made their way onto Thrashing Thru the Passion. It’s the band’s first full-length release in five years — a departure from the once hardworking, prolific group.
In the interim, frontman Craig Finn has released three solo albums. Meanwhile, keyboardist Franz Nicolay — who departed in 2010 — has re-joined the fold, expanding the band’s line-up to a six-piece (guitarist Steve Selvidge joined in place of Nicolay in 2010). As such, the band’s seventh album is more than long-awaited. Considering half of its content has been out for consumption since 2017, it’s a confusing one. The record is more like a compilation than an outright studio album.
Thrashing Thru the Passion is, nonetheless, a solid rock ‘n’ roll album, albeit less anthemic than their output pre-2010. Finn’s loquacious lyricism is still as brilliantly filled with intricate scenes and characters as ever. Nicolay’s return shines a light on what made the band so distinctive, reintroducing sonic elements sorely missed in his absence. Though less flashy than in his initial run, you need only look to his piano and organ on cuts like ballad ‘Blackout Sam’, or the soulful outro to the evangelical ‘T-Shirt Tux’ to appreciate how vital his contributions are to The Hold Steady’s sound.
The album is, however, one of the most straightforward in the band’s discography. At their height, The Hold Steady favoured layered guitars, Nicolay’s piano pageantry and Finn’s televangelist-like charisma. Now, The Hold Steady sound like they’re playing to crowds emblematic of the title bestowed upon them by music press. ‘Epaulets’ — despite its energy and pop sensibility — would have been left off an album like Boys and Girls in America in favour of something more sprawling.
Gone too are the epic guitar riffs of yesteryear. This is another point of confusion considering the three-guitar setup the band boasts. Given the talents of Selvidge and founding member Tad Kubler (who dubbed lead parts prior to Selvidge joining the group) and the band’s obvious indebtedness to classic rock, you might expect some back and forth whether it be twin leads or interlocking riffs. What we get on Thrashing Thru the Passion are clean arpeggios and chugging power chords. ‘Entitlement Crew’ being the most glaring example of just how underwhelming this can be. ‘The Stove & The Toaster’ bares a guitar solo buried beneath Finn’s lead vocal and a roaring brass section. On “T-Shirt Tux’, however, we see the chunky, deft guitar work of old.
However, Craig Finn’s earned reputation as the poet laureate and official raconteur of the late bar makes up for the lack of inspiring guitar work. While Finn has always been a deft lyricist, it wouldn’t have been unfair to say that he leaned quite heavily on the same old themes (drug addiction, religion, redemption), the same old cities (St. Paul, Minneapolis, Ybor City) and the same old people (Holly, Charlemagne), romanticising and glorifying their lives. This is no longer the case, his solo output having allowed him space to re-evaluate his poetic focus. Finn is now middle aged, and we get the sense that his narrative subjects are ageing too. They get together to drink and reminisce on ‘Entitlement Crew’. Elsewhere, they lament “local legends with the far away eyes” on ‘Blackout Sam’.
Lyrically, Thrashing Thru the Passion sees The Hold Steady reach a newfound maturity. Certainly the sort of progress a band of their tenure should be making. But, despite Finn’s sense of perspective, the rest of the band seem stuck in second gear at times and regressive at others.