There are many great lines that Craig Finn has offered up with a grin, shrugged shoulders, spit raining down on a pile of sweaty dudes — and maybe a stray girl — all of whom are shouting his words back to him or finishing hanging phrases in call and response. But of all the razor sharp, knowingly dark, and often wise-beyond-his-and-our-years-combined lines, “In dying at least he didn’t have to deal with new wave for a second time” sticks out.
At the time, 2005, when Separation Sunday came out, that line spoke to the music scene, with The Killers, and The Bravery, and She Wants Revenge. But to many of us at the time, The Hold Steady also sounded like the music of a previous generation, like the music we were trying to get away from with our Arcade Fire. Few people I know liked The Hold Steady on first listen, but slowly, one at a time, everyone seemed to come around, realizing that pounding beers in a car outside a wedding just made more sense when listening to “Multitude of Casualties”.
A decade later and we might be less likely to pound beers on any occasion, but that doesn’t mean we want our music to reflect that. In fact, most people as they age will listen to music to get back to that packed car, to get back to feeling young, and that’s what The Hold Steady felt like to begin with, guys regaining their departing youth, happy to share what they learned, well aware that the world hasn’t changed much since they were getting in trouble in the alley behind the bar, or the bathroom of a party where no one knows the host.
Teeth Dreams speaks nothing to why The Hold Steady were successful, to why they meant so much to a small, very vocal part of the population. Hell, they even got a shoutout from Hurley on Lost. I don’t remember the gang from Lost talking about Arcade Fire ever. Now, gone are all the stakes; where Finn used to sing about youth, and our relationships with each other, and the darkness we see each other visit, Teeth Dreams never gives you much reason to care about anything you are hearing.
Opener “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” is a near hit, with a relatively inviting hook, though the verse does bite its cadence from their own title track off Stay Positive. The problem remains in the subject matter. The song is about a skinhead gang and viewing that scene as a former participant, now from from the outside. And whereas there was some universal ability to relate to Finn’s past subject matter, no matter how druggy or bloody it got, most of the highly specific references here and the song’s internal conflict fall on deaf ears, and it’s hard to imagine many finding much to relate to in the words. And even the central idea, the “hope this whole thing doesn’t frighten you,” seems preposterous with lines like “they got masks for gas and they’re sleeping in their bulletproof vests.” If those things don’t frighten you, I’d hate to see what you dream about at night. Probably not teeth.
On recent albums, Finn has started writing less about youth and more about what comes next. The characters from Finn’s early songs, Charlemagne and Hallelujah and Gideon, they weren’t bound to have great lives as they got older, and predictably, Finn’s songs of hope for these types just don’t sound so hopeful. Whether it was “Hurricane J” or “Rock Problems” on the last album, “Spinners” and “The Only Thing” on this one, his narratives have some wisdom in them, and sadness, and maybe even an occasional glimmer of hope, but even at their strongest, there is a mundanity to the subject matter (and unfortunately to the music) that makes it all sort of a drag.
From the sloppy production and uninspired arrangements to the fact that Tad Kubler hasn’t written a memorable guitar lead since 2008, Teeth Dreams sounds like the characters in its songs: past its prime and just trying to get by, but with the past creeping back in and not letting anyone forget it. Any time Finn refers to a past Hold Steady track, like “The Only Thing” and its “Slapped Actress” throwback to “dust in the spotlight,” they come off as obligatory, like the band is forced to sit through a conversation with an old friend where the past keeps popping up no matter how hard they try to move on. Teeth Dreams is an album that screams “we have grown up” and “we want to write about something else” — or possibly just assumes their audience has grown up and is pandering to that idea — and it finds Finn looking in a dry well. Maybe he’s known the people that he’s writing about, but not well enough that we ever think we know them.
It’s hard to say where The Hold Steady lost what made them great, or even good. Maybe it was when Franz Nicolay left a month before the announcement of Heaven Is Whenever. Nicolay referred to his work with the band as a “closed book,” like maybe something was already gone and he just followed suit. The dropoff of these last two albums, plus Finn’s solo LP, supports the book being closed after Stay Positive. Seeing the band decline, seeing all of your favorite bands decline, is one of the drags of being a music fan. Sometimes it’s impossible to admit seeing good things end, and we’re left clamoring for a return of what made something good, making the greatest critics seem like spoiled, stubborn children. It’s probably akin to Finn’s hearing new wave for the second time.
Growing up and getting older, your favorite bands can remain great, your friends can remain optimistic and beautiful, and the complications have yet to take any joy you feel and put a price tag on it. There is something to be said for those that toil through and try to to work things out, like there is something to be said for The Hold Steady surviving to make this bad album. That’s an awfully lucky and rare outcome, though. For the rest of us, there are silver linings to a band dying young (though nothing silver enough to make going through the death easy). Listening to Teeth Dreams makes Nicolay’s knowledge of when a story is over make a lot of sense.
Essential Tracks: “Spinners”, “The Only Thing”