The Hold Steady has become a guaranteed hit-making machine in the indie-rock world. But its new album, “Heaven is Whenever,” doesn’t break the mold for The Hold Steady albums; it just changes the tone.
With its 2006 release, “Boys and Girls in America,” The Hold Steady mastered capturing the euphoria of teenagers and young adults and since then has been dealing with aging. “Heaven is Whenever” continues the slower, darker sound the band started to explore on “Stay Positive.” The album begins with deep acoustic guitar stroking before the drums kick in with lead singer Craig Finn’s powerful, rough vocals, sounding reserved and focused. His singing has lost some of the edge it once had, and he’s sounding more mature and distant from his crazier times.
With the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, the album’s tracks focus primarily on guitar. Tracks like “Smidge” and “Rock Problems” feature prominent guitar lines and distortion to fill the void left by the lack of a full-time keyboardist. The band continues to use piano, though, such as in the introduction to late standout “Our Whole Lives,” but it comes across as a simple afterthought.
The Hold Steady has always had some of the most intelligent lyrics in rock music, and “Heaven is Whenever” is no different. Finn’s speak-sing style and rough voice make him sound like an elderly mentor, especially while dishing out advice in “Soft in the Center.” Finn sings, “You can’t tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth / and I’m just trying to tell the truth.”
“Heaven is Whenever” puts the band’s party-centric songs to rest, but The Hold Steady’s latest lyrics clearly show it wants to leave a mark.