By Alex Rice
World peace, everlasting devotion and social strife provide the creative fuel for scores of history’s most beloved artists. But for many rock ‘n’ roll songwriters, the quest for a kiss is all the inspiration they really need. When the lurking lips of young lust fully connect, it’s a pivotal point in a person’s story. Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn understands the gravity of locked lips. His band’s catalog is covered in smooches, often shared between the reckless, wayward sorts of folks with little more than surviving from one day to the next on their agenda. Smooching is often used as a subversively profound device to move Finn’s vividly off-kilter narratives along. The kiss is key, although it’s only part of the larger puzzle that is the Hold Steady universe.
Barfruit Blues (2004)
The Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, introduced the world to Finn’s alternate reality - dubbed by fans “The Unified Scene” - through boozy vignettes of late nights gone awry. “She licked her lower lip and then she kissed that Hallelujah chick,” Finn reveals, for the first time referencing Holly, the protagonist of the next year’s Separation Sunday. This bruising anthem for van-bound bar bands everywhere later cites two of the group’s musical touchstones, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Thunder.
Hornets! Hornets! (2005)
The opener to 2005’s conceptual, Catholic and cathartic Separation Sunday finds a teenaged Holly downing drugs and turning tricks. The jaded female lead has to “concentrate when we kiss,” but Finn masterfully weaves her redemptive tale through biblical allegory over the LP’s 11 tracks. He got the title from the mascot of his suburban Minneapolis high school, Edina High, later mentioned by the narrator as he recalls the time he “almost died” driving down the wrong side of nearby Hwy 169.
Stuck Between Stations (2006)
The triumphant opening salvo of 2006’s Boys and Girls in America comes through crystal-clear on our dial. Backed by a stadium-sized, Springsteenian guitar/piano tandem, Finn offers a couplet far too many hopeful young lads can relate to: “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn't all that strict of a Christian / She was a damn good dancer, but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend.” Pitchfork put this epic anthem at #11 on its Top 100 Songs of ’06 list, and the tune lent its name to an unheralded 2011 Josh Hartnett flick, also set in the actor’s birthplace of Minneapolis - home to those Twin City kisses.
Navy Sheets (2008)
With suggestive mentions of “sucking on something sweet” and how “everybody’s coming on the navy sheets,” a mere allusion to “clever kids kissing on a bleak retreat” might get lost in the sweaty entanglements. But as the synth goes gloriously haywire around him on this wild-ass Stay Positive rocker, Finn intimates that the smooching was simply the beginning. As overtly sexual as “Navy Sheets” is lyrically, the left-field instrumentation sure sneaks up on you to punch you in the kisser.
Denver Haircut (2019)
After years spent in the vicinity of Minneapolis-St. Paul International, the lead cut on Thrashing Thru the Passion (the first Hold Steady record in 11 years to feature keyboardist Franz Nicolay) lands at the Mile High City’s own global hub in a frenzy. “I've kissed and I've cackled with half of these jackals / Still couldn't get any jet fuel,” the track’s airborne female subject laments. Hipsters around the 303 and 720 are dying to know - what exactly is a Denver haircut?
Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.
Photos: Adam Parshall