After the Hold Steady’s fourth album, Stay Positive, leaked, Vagrant streamed it through MySpace and released it through iTunes a full month early. It seemed like a move more fit for the EMIs and the Coldplays of the world, but the action revealed just how big everyone expects the Hold Steady to be. They’re ready for the prime time. They're ready for Middle America.
Where 2005's Separation Sunday, the band's second album, was a song cycle about a girl on drugs, and 2006's Boys and Girls in America was a rumination on not being able to get as high as you used to, Stay Positive finds Craig Finn and company tackling big issues, like parenting, aging, politics, and love, but in a way that will be instantly relatable to the kinds of people who spend most of their time listening to the likes of Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley.
That’s not to say there’s not still time for debauchery; opener “Constructive Summer” is a pounding Boss-like shout along, with Finn yelling, “We’re gonna build something this summer” while his band shouts “Get wasted” in harmony. Blustery lead single “Sequestered in Memphis” traces the story of two star-crossed lovers (one of which is Finn) who have sex in a Texas bar bathroom before committing some crime for which police in Memphis are now questioning Finn. Finn tries to explain what the woman looked like, but he can’t remember, and all he can muster is “In bar light she looked all right/ in day light/ she looked desperate.”
After the saxophone blasts of “Sequestered” drift off, “One for the Cutters,” a slow-burning ballad, begins regally with a harpsichord. Like many of the album’s tracks, it is about a central tragic character, superficially, but is open enough for the listener to put their own life between the notes. In “Cutters, ”a girl is lured by one of the “townies” at the local watering hole, eventually becoming an accomplice to his crime. “Dad do you know where you’re kids are?/ Sniffing at crystal in cute little cars/ Get nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars,” Finn barks, encapsulating the worries every parent has before shipping their kids off to the local dive at age 21 (and often, much sooner).
The “let-the-listener relate” vibe continues over to “Joke About Jamaica,” a song about listening to Zeppelin in a bar, and how everyone (but the female main character) know that “D’Yer Maker” is really pronounced “Jamaica.” The song then changes when that woman suddenly finds herself the oldest woman in the bar, and comes to the realization that all the power in small towns is with younger women.
This newfound shoot-for-the-fences attitude that the band have does misfire, and perhaps too often. “Navy Sheets” sounds like a sub-Dropkick Murphy’s bar-ballad, and “Lord I’m Discouraged” is too slow and ambiguous to mean anything. But the worst offender is the title-track. On “Stay Positive,” Finn pins his hopes for the future of music, politics, and everything up to, and including, the fate of the world, on the people who are coming to his shows, who, because of Finn’s influence, will then go out and raise more aware kids. “We gotta stay positive” Finn growls, coming off like a more optimistic (and less grating) version of Conor Oberst, but still just as shortsighted and preachy.
Considering most of the album is spent describing what life’s like for the rest of us, it’s surprising Stay Positive ends on a relatively self-focused note, courtesy of album highlight “Slapped Actress.” The track is a bruising ripper inspired by the John Cassavetes film Opening Night, and examines the band’s steadfast need to make art for their fans. Opening Night may be about an actress who refuses to acknowledge her personal problems until a young fan dies coming to see her, but the opposite proves to be true with Stay Positive. Finn wasn’t able to articulate our personal problems until we started coming to see him.