By Alex Rice
There’s an especially strong sense of finality to the last song on The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive - much more so than your average album closer. In “Slapped Actress,” frontman Craig Finn pulls back the curtain on the character-driven narratives that cross-pollinate to form the hoodrat universe he creates on his band’s first four records. “We are the theater, they are the people,” Finn talk-sings in trademark fashion during the tune’s first refrain, before spitting out an ultimate summation of The Hold Steady’s discography in the second. “Man, we make our own movies.”
If each of those initial four LPs - Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday, Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive - feel like distinct chapters in the same film, then 2010’s Heaven is Whenever is an entirely different production altogether. Rather than detailing the druggy exploits of his lyrical subjects, Finn now seems comfortable enough in the director’s chair to tell his own stories on The Hold Steady's fifth offering. Leading lads and ladies like Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon don’t appear to exist in the world of Heaven is Whenever, and if they do it’s far in the rearview mirror of the LP’s wisened narrator.
The cast changes of Heaven is Whenever’s go beyond The Hold Steady’s imagined world. Presumably having witnessed too many “Rock Problems,” the immaculately-dressed keyboardist Franz Nicolay exited early in its sessions (he's back now). He was replaced for the supporting tour not by another piano man, but by a second guitarist - ex-Lucero axeman Steve Selvidge, who joined founding member Tad Kubler in a twin attack. Heaven is Whenever remains the group’s most tranquil affair, but its emphasis on six-strings holds steady with the rest.
The slide guitar of “The Sweet Part of the City,” for instance, introduces one of the most graceful and glorious moments in the Hold Steady catalog. “Back when we were living up on Hennepin, she kept threatening to turn us in,” the Twin Cities-reared narrator reminiscences on the album’s slow-burn opener. “The sweet part of the city / The part with the bars and restaurants.” The people may have changed, but the place never did. The mention of one of Minneapolis’s major thoroughfares on the first line of Heaven is Whenever immediately places the LP on the same map as City of Lakes rockers like “Stuck Between Stations” or “How a Resurrection Really Feels.”
Third track “The Weekenders” also follows the thread of one of The Hold Steady’s most beloved numbers, the 2006 horse-racing chronicle “Chips Ahoy!” Whereas the exuberant Boys and Girls cut finds wonder in the clairvoyance of a girl who won big at the OTB by calling on the correct colt, “Weekenders” acknowledges that the days-long binge that followed amounted to a pyrrhic victory. “There was that whole weird thing with the horses,” the singer concedes. “God only knows it's not always a positive thing to see a few seconds into the future.”
The record’s de-facto title track, meanwhile, appears much more rooted in Finn’s own formative musical experiences. “We Can Get Together” packs in as many angelic references as would fit on his lyric sheet, such as British indie poppers Heavenly, Pavement’s “Heaven is a Truck” and, not least of all, seminal St. Paul punks Hüsker Dü and their track “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.” “Heaven is whenever we can get together / Sit down on your floor and listen to your records,” he daydreams. “Lock your bedroom door and listen to your records.”
Heaven is Whenever is an album fitting of such fantasies. Hide yourself away with it and perhaps you, too, will be able to experience places as times. Or times as places. And then you’ll be able make your own damn movie.
Bandbox is excited to offer our exclusive pressing of Heaven is Whenever's 10th anniversary pressing, on translucent red marble vinyl! It comes on 2 LPs and sports nine bonus tracks (tracklisting below) plus a "Hurricane J"/"Our Whole Lives (Avatar Sessions)" 7-inch single, which is only available from Bandbox. But wait; there's more! Our Hold Steady zine includes a Heaven is Whenever track-track band commentary, lots of nerdy THS features and a collection of rare, career-spanning photos.