Hard-working Brooklynites stay true to their punk roots with spectacular results.
This, the follow-up to their 2006 breakthrough ‘Boys And Girls In America’, is The Hold Steady’s fourth slab of punk-rock evangelism in five years. Perhaps it’s their desire to make up for lost time (all members are either 35 or over), but the Brooklyn band aren’t wasting any time in their quest to preach the gospel of rock’n’roll. Yet even for a band who’ve notched a niche on the righteousness scale somewhere between their beloved Springsteen and blue-collar boozers The Replacements, ‘Stay Positive’ redefines their modus operandi significantly.
With both singer Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler having served in ’90s post-punk outfit Lifter Puller, they’re well aware of ‘positive hardcore’; a sub-strand of punk birthed in ’80s America that marked itself out by affirming community and anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic schools of thought. The overwhelming notion posed by ‘posi’ was that you can make your life, and subsequently the world, better. If not stylistically then certainly ideologically, it’s a way of thinking that infuses ‘Stay Positive’ throughout.
Finn refers to it on the record’s title tune, giving props to two of the movement’s most significant bands, decreeing, “Youth Of Today and early 7 Seconds/Taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons”. Then there’s opening salvo ‘Constructive Summer’ and the sensational couplet, “Me and my friends are like the drums on ‘Lust For Life’/We pound it out on floor toms, our psalms are singalong songs”, abetted by a shout-out to St Joe Strummer (“our only decent teacher”) and the singer’s proclamation, “Let this be my annual reminder/That we can all be something better”. You imagine the namechecked straight edge bands would tut at the same song’s gang chant of “get hammered!” yet the record draws on themes of friendship and creativity that wouldn’t be out of place on a Gorilla Biscuits seven-inch. This is a record, and indeed a band, that doesn’t simply want to entertain, but to make the lives of its listeners better.
And it helps that the songs are great; ‘Lord, I’m Discouraged’ sounds like ‘Red Letter Day’-era Buffalo Tom, only laced with some awesomely silly guitar noodling from Kubler. Then ‘Magazines’ sees producer John Agnello expanding on his fine work on ‘Boys And Girls…’ and succeeding in refining the song’s grunge folk. Only on the single ‘Sequestered In Memphis’ do the band’s impeccable standards drop, with Finn’s wordcraft being slightly too clever for his own good.
‘Stay Positive’ not only confirms The Hold Steady’s status as one of the best rock’n’roll bands in the world, but establishes them as one of its most important too. Frankly, album five can’t come soon enough.