The Hold Steady’s fifth studio album flips the beaten-but-not-broken optimism of 2007’s Stay Positive for a more reflective Zen trip. Or, in vocalist/guitarist Craig Finn’s words, “embracing suffering and understanding its place in a joyful life.” Though there is no one theme to the record, one constant is a weary narrative voice sharing sage observations and advice. Sure, the stories are still painful and the riffs still bruising. But contrary to the band’s neo-Bukowski reputation for bloozy bar-cum-arena rawk, Heaven Is Whenever demonstrates a more deliberate approach by constantly looking back without anger.
The opening “The Sweet Part Of The City” quickly marks this change with its well of slide and acoustic guitars. Over a slow-mo beat, the 38-year-old Finn paints a seemingly distant scene of small-town youth searching for meaning and fun. The band quickly bares its teeth again on the following track, “Soft In The Center,” as the guitars punch through the opening. Soon after they strip enough of the amped-up fat to make room for Finn’s fatherly wisdom: “You can’t get every girl/ You get the ones you love the best.” Similarly, “Hurricane J” starts at a pop-punk clip, then clears its guitars for the singer’s paternal narrator to draw out dramatic pleas like, “You know I never ask you to change, I only ask you to try.”
Such careful arrangements reflect The Hold Steady’s “rock Legos” approach to pre-production on this album. The band demoed many of the songs while on tour and entered the studio with outlines instead of full arrangements. Much of their playing was recorded, reviewed and then developed into full songs over a period of six months. Along with the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, the remaining quartet reflected this void in their music. As a result Heaven Is Whenever is relatively subtle, at least by the band’s standards.
Make no mistake, there is still plenty of rock — it’s just doled out selectively instead of consistently. “The Weekenders” carefully builds tension instead of exploding all at once (sure, the quiet-loud formula is hardly new, but it’s relatively unexplored territory for the band). And the epic rock — everything from the blaring horns and buzzing guitars to Catholic/Mass(achusetts) references and no-tomorrow drinking — of the band’s yore remains intact on “Our Whole Lives.” However, the big chords and bigger choruses are just one of several tools to be used alongside harmonized fade-outs and acoustic instruments.
No shit, dynamic arrangements and good stories make for good music. Yet the Hold Steady deserves credit for being able to churn out memorable licks and lines with seemingly effortless ease. Finn is in rare lyrical form especially when tackling middle-age complacency: “Usually hit the gym, now mostly stay inside” (“A Slight Discomfort”), or “We used to want it all/ Now we just want a little bit” (“The Smidge”). The ballad “We Can Get Together” marks the midpoint of the album, and almost buries its most wistful image, “Heaven is whenever we can get together/ Lock your bedroom doors and listen to records.” This idea of heaven as a moment instead of a place or ideal perhaps best sums up the band’s slant: time is recognized as a process for reflection instead of an obstruction to an awesome rock song.