One of my life's great tragedies is not being born in the late-eighties or early nineties and growing up with the music of that era, eventually plopping me at seventeen or thereabouts when The Hold Steady--American rock legends fronted by class-A poet, Craig Finn--were really at the top of their game. To be in high school when Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America dropped would have been a transcendent experience, and becoming an adult when the wistful Stay Positive came out… words couldn’t even describe what that would have meant. My parents took their sweet time, but I suppose what's done is done. Regardless, The Hold Steady are one of those groups that furnish your taste in music. Help you come of age in adulthood like an aural Fight Club. Discovering music has almost stopped being “magical” to me, despite still coming upon quality stuff, but The Hold Steady are the recent exception.
Stay Positive found me at just the right time. Homebound and depressed, lost and not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. Those opening chords of “Constructive Summer” blew me out of the water in that simple way that I wasn’t expecting. I listened to the entire thing front to back about three times that day, and I believe I’ve now heard their entire output. I'm consistently floored by every lyric, the small details and powerful truths bottled down into them… but none have had such an effect as the closer of that introductory album: a song called “Slapped Actress”.
Sitting dead-center at the transition between the presence and departure of keyboard-player Franz Nicolay, “Slapped Actress” finds the protagonists Finn had been crafting throughout his entire career at something of a juncture. Between the naivete of youth and the back-facing maturity that comes with real, authentic adulthood. When getting drunk every night and going to parties becomes self-defeatist. When you’re the oldest guy in the room and it’s just getting uncomfortable. Finn has stated in many interviews that the whole album was influenced by his reaction to the 1977 film, Opening Night, and knowing that, much is illuminated. In one particular Vulture article--one in which Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler picked their favorite songs from each album--Finn references a scene in which John Cassavetes tells Gena Rowlands that he’s going to slap her for real in the premiere of a play the film centers around. Rowlands’ character asks him why he can’t just pretend to slap her, and Cassavetes replies that otherwise it won’t look real. This scene and Finn's ensuant reaction spurred the album on, and this song in particular. It's about the face a person puts on… especially people in their position.
Moreso than any album preceding it, instead of centering around the aimless Charlemagne and Holly, this one is more baldly about Finn and his own identity. Like Gena Rowlands in Opening Night, he’s getting older, and the tales he tells are simultaneously paralleling his own life greater and feeling more like a façade than ever. “Slapped Actress” sends off a record more truthful and soulful than any even Springsteen can boast, with a wail of confession, casting the pastiche of a stage-play over the set of a live show. The song opens with a kick--placed deliberately after two very good, albeit disposable, songs--to tell the story of one of Finn’s protagonists and for once his narrator seems truly mournful. Every line in the first verse begins with “Don’t tell…” as the narrator begs his friend, perhaps lover, not to mention what they did the night prior to anyone he knows or anyone who knows anyone he knows. Put this song aside “Party Pit” from Stuck Between Stations or “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” from Separation Sunday, and the difference is stark. Even the most sorry moments on those albums don’t probe as deep as those on Stay Positive. There's still hope in those moments. They're still muddled in the folly of youth--not to mention they relate primarily to lost loves and broken friendships. They are poignant and beautiful, but never before and never since have The Hold Steady stuck their fists so deep in the pie of wasted potential.
Sure, these guys aren’t deadbeats, but Finn’s at-the-time depression and persona as the aging partygoer crafted one of the finest feats of musical poetry I’ve ever heard. Returning to the Opening Night parallels and to the metaphor of performance being like a play, lyrics like “we’re dust in the spotlight; we’re just kind of floating”; and “they come in for the beating, to see the stadium seating; and they’re holding their hands out, for the body and blood now,” not only work as beautiful imagery, but also cast the band as charlatans of their own making, as both a trapped audience and as godlike deities, conducting a rock ’n’ roll mass in a massive theatre. Before kicking into the final barn burning chorus, Finn references that scene in Opening Night specifically. “Sometimes actresses get slapped,” he whispers. “Sometimes fake fights turn out bad, sometimes actresses get slapped.” He repeats this a few times before becoming more transparent with a line that is absolutely unheard of from a rock band. “Some nights it’s entertainment, and some other nights it’s work.” It is in this moment that it becomes abundantly clear that this is the climax. Not just of the album, but the band itself. They name-drop themselves like a roll-credits scene, and send themselves off on a cloud of “whoahs.” It’s earth-shattering. It’s downright beautiful.
And, until recently, that was the end. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay departed after Stay Positive, leaving the band to put out two albums that were steps down in the same way falling off the Cliffs of Dover is a step down, proving that despite Finn’s lyrical prowess, the band at its peak was absolutely greater than the sum of its parts. Nicolay has since returned though, and all is well with the world. They're putting out some more adventurous stuff, retaining the poetry and trying new things, but despite these latest two albums being leaps and bounds better than I’d expected, they haven’t put out anything as good as “Slapped Actress,” and likely never will again. And that's okay.
What’s most interesting to me though about Stay Positive is that while every quality Hold Steady record before or since has this sort of underground feel about it--regardless of whether or not they are--Stay Positive has a very accessible alt-country sound. It’s warm and inviting, despite its more depressive themes. It’s as if it was always meant to be their most honest effort, shedding any preconception of musical elitism with the illusion that they’re always going to be the cool band to listen to. It’s definitively adult, definitively American, and a musical coming of age story that changed my life and my outlook early on in the pandemic. The best art comes from a place of honesty, and growing up is never as scary as you think its going to be. Change comes with the territory of being human.
“Slapped Actress” in particular encompasses all of the themes of the record in a way that I’ve never before seen an album do. Fans of the band know that they really pour everything they have into their closers and “Slapped Actress” is likely the best of the bunch. It’s hard to peel off the mask you’ve been wearing for as long as you can remember, but it’s a part of becoming who you really are. Many people came out of the pandemic forgetting how to socialize, but I came out not caring how I did. I am now the exact same person with my family, friends, coworkers and over the radio. It’s liberating. I don’t give “Slapped Actress” all the credit, of course... but it makes for a better story, doesn’t it?
Check out my review of The Hold Steady's album, Open Door Policy here!