The Bible tells us that Samson, last of the judges of the ancient Israelites, was blessed with super-human strength. He slayed a lion with his bare hands. He massacred an entire army of Philistines using only the jawbone of a donkey. The secret to his strength? His long, flowing hair. When his lover Delilah betrayed him and had his hair cut, Samson lost his powers. Look, we’re not saying that The Hold Steady completely lost their abilities during the six-year hiatus that hirsute keyboard player Franz Nicolay took from the Brooklyn band, but you shouldn’t ever underestimate the power of a great moustache.
Fittingly, the band’s seventh long player, their overdue follow up to 2014’s disappointing ‘Teeth Dreams’ and the first collection of songs to feature Nicolay since 2008’s phenomenal ‘Stay Positive’, opens with a doozy of a tune called ‘Denver Haircut’. “He shaved his head at the airport,” sings Craig Finn, “in a bar at the end of the concourse.” It sets the scene for what’s to follow. The Hold Steady have spent over a decade-and-a-half sharing their stories about those in and out of love, the broken and the bruised – like Bruce Springsteen if he wrote solely about the people last to be picked for the sports team – with songs featuring a revolving cast of characters more often than not hailing from Finn’s native Minneapolis. And yet even by the standards of what already exists, the cast of ‘Thrashing Thru The Passion’ are an eccentric bunch.
‘Denver Haircut’ also tells us of “a spaceship shaped like a Gibson Marauder” whereupon “the pilot kinda looked like Kirk Hammett”. Finn tells us about the girl “with the Diplomat’s shake” and “some kind of crystal container” (‘You Did Good Kid’), about the fella “pissin’ on his parachute pants” (‘Star 18’), about “the guy with the t-shirt tux and the piano key tie” (‘T-shirt Tux’). It’s business as usual for him, and business is good. But the boozy, jam band rock that’s long framed the singers very best storytelling benefits hugely from the return of the fuzzy faced Nicolay. This is best demonstrated on a song called ‘Blackout Sam’, sequenced right in the middle of the record, which sees the plonk of ivory in the verses and sorrowful brass in the choruses aligning perfectly with Finn’s askew observations, to create the first truly great Hold Steady song in almost a decade.
As ever, The Hold Steady achieve their best work when their playing is loose. When the songs are filtered through the bottom of a shot glass. When they sound like the best bar band in the best bar you didn’t know about until the moment that you found yourself in it at 3am in the morning. On the basis of ‘Thrashing Thru The Passion’, that band are back. Great news for rock. Terrible for livers.