I am not a The Hold Steady fanboy by any stretch of the imagination. To be honest the only album of theirs I play with any regularity is Separation Sunday. Boys and Girls in America was an alright album and I pull it out every once in a while, especially for Chillout Tent and Southtown Girls, but it just didn’t feel like a strong album. As far as Stay Positive is concerned I wasn’t impressed at all. I wasn’t looking forward to Heaven is Whenever and until I sat down to write about it I didn’t even know that Franz Nicolay had even left the band. Hell to be honest, as much as I love Separation Sunday, I couldn’t have told you any of the band members’ names before today so you won’t find me opining on how the sound has changed and how it may be better or worse. I won’t pick apart the music and try and say how it’s changed between Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever other than to say that I think this is a much better album than the last. Simply put The Hold Steady now has two albums I consider Essential Listening and this one of them.
I don’t know what happened on this album. I saw the band taking a direction over the last three albums that I didn’t much care for and so I pretty much had written them off. Now that doesn’t mean that they weren’t making solid music but rather that the music they were making didn’t much appeal to me. When I got this one I pretty much thought I’d listen to it as it came up on random and that would be that but over a couple of weeks as the tracks popped up they caught my attention more and more so I pulled up the whole album and gave it a listen. I was more than pleasantly surprised. Wherever these kids were headed on Stay Positive they slammed on the brakes, drove back to Separation Sunday and started the whole goddamn trip over. Some albums have a few good songs, some have mostly good songs, and some feel like a single piece of completed work and Heaven is Whenever falls into the latter category. Nothing seems forced and it doesn’t feel like something got left out somewhere on the way to the studio. From the guitar to the bridges to the lyrics to the hand claps this is a solid album song to song. It might take time to grow on you but it’s their strongest release since Separation Sunday and should be Essential Listening even if only for the lyric “There was that whole weird thing with the horses; I think they know exactly what happened I don’t think it needs any explaining…” from The Weekenders which ranks right up there in my favorite lyrics with ” I guess I heard about original sin. I heard the dude blamed the chick. I heard the chick blamed the snake. I heard they were naked when they got busted.” As far as the band as a whole is concerned the jury is still out. I have never heard Almost Killed Me so right now they are at two really good albums, one passable, and one that I didn’t like. I won’t be writing off their next release before I hear it that’s for sure.