There are no casual The Hold Steady listeners, it turns out. Nobody just likes a couple of The Hold Steady songs. This is a group that knows its fans, plays to its fans, and damn all the rest. Now, I boarded that train a bit late, just last year I think, but damn if they’ve not become one of my favorite bands of all time. Beginning in 2004 with the release of Almost Killed Me through Stay Positive (their magnum-opus of a fourth album in 2008) they were batting 100 and could have called it quits there. Their successive two albums, Heaven is Whenever and Teeth Dreams were two definitive steps down, considering the departure of Franz Nicolay, the resident piano-man, because with him went the soul of the sound they had cultivated. Of course, the brain remained in the form of Craig Finn, lead singer and class-A poet, and when Nicolay returned for 2019’s Thrashing Thru the Passion, the band was back in business for its second act: the act of contrition.
I should start off by saying that I have never been more thrilled with a new album by a group I’m following than I was with Open Door Policy, released on February 19th of this year. It--perhaps even more so than their prior output--seems tailor-made for this city-based ennui and loneliness. It’s different. More contemplative. I’d been following the singles as they dropped, and while they promised something great, I guess I had no idea just how great it would be. We open with “The Feelers,” a slow song and one totally uncharacteristic of an opener of any album they’ve ever put out. It’s slow and hazy. Like the soundtrack of a hangover. It seems an odd choice at first, but it’s an exceptional choice for this one for it’s almost dirgey quality which soon gives way to a bittersweet ending.
The whole album plays this way, really. It’s like they’ve woken up in a stupor. The second track, “Spices,” was one of the singles that dropped, and is definitely more of a grower than a shower. It’s a dismal, paranoid song from the rock bottom looking up, and the lyrics are pure poetry. The sinister imagery of bartenders “strangling their shakers” and Finn’s unnamed muse “trading stickers with… shipwrecked sailors” casts a foreboding tone, further setting the stage for the rest of the album.
The singles are some of my favorites on here, surely--“Family Farm” and “Heavy Covenant” were the best of the three--and it’s these that make up half of Open Door Policy’s great four-track stretch from track four (“Family Farm”) through eight (“The Prior Procedure”) which tread the line of old and new The Hold Steady so brilliantly that every one of them gave me goosebumps.
I’m at the point where I’d laud an album of Finn’s cutting poetry without backing music a tall, because this is a guy who “gets,” from where I’m standing, what it’s like to circle the drain in the prime of your life. “Family Farm” follows Finn’s narrator as he looks back on his Catholic upbringing as he chases the high of young lust, which is very much simplifying things… but is truly an all-time great song, as many of these prove to be. There’s also, despite the triumphant horns, a familiar undercurrent of regret and disappointment with success here. “If you’re still in Pennsylvania,” Finn pleads. “I’d advise you not to leave. Take some nickels from the fountain, make your friends and fall asleep.” It’s a plea to the dreamers to not dream too big, and that sometimes it’s okay to be sad. “They’re never gonna love you in that one specific way that you want them all to love you,” cries its hair-raising chorus. And that’s just fine. “Sometimes it feels sweet to be the teacher.”
“Unpleasant Breakfast” was a new sound for The Hold Steady, and was another highlight. 2019’s Thrashing Through the Passion was their best album in years, though it did still feel like they were getting their sea legs back after years on the mainland. This album is rife with new experimentation. It’s almost dancy, radio-ready, triumphant and gloomy. Among their usual theological references, Open Door Policy is also rife with nautical imagery, as seen in “Spices,” “Lanyards,” and here in full form. This one looks seaward for promise and newness. It’s full of mystique and its own unique tragedies. The love lost in this one seems cast to the waves, and never to be seen again, which makes things even more devastating. The lyrics here are translucent and beautiful, giving us shadowy insight to a relationship sinking in drug-abuse and inner-city pressures.
And the drug motif continues through “Heavy Covenant,” a pulsing missile of sound that, while great as a single, feels especially appropriate in the middle of the record, comparing the covenant one might make with their God with a dependence one has on their drug dealer. If anyone can make such a premise work it’s Craig Finn, and he does so with seeming ease. It’s a sad song of desperation but is radio-ready like nothing I’ve heard in the past five years. He gives his characters such depth in these lyrics, and they demand a read-along. By comparing his own “heavy covenant” in a dead-end sales job to his carry-over to recreation-cum-addiction he touches a unique kind of nerve that hits brilliant and heartbreaking.
Rounding out this four-song stretch is “The Prior Procedure,” which again, has some stellar lyrics and is backed by some great music. This one deals with alienation in the modern world through a motif following a fawn as its learned instincts can’t save it from a grisly highway-death. Between this fawn’s appearances, the narrator hangs around an isolating house-party in a penthouse apartment. He takes note of the people inside, silently judging them, but deep down it seems he wishes he was like them. He does it so well, too! And it’s not by talking of his own feelings, but by simply picking and choosing which people to spy on. It’s not an easy trick, but the man is a genius. The crux of the song seems to be in the optional PowerPoint presentation held by the host of this party about “the chum and the shark,” which is, apparently, “just a reminder love will tear us apart.” Goosebumps-inducingly good. Everyone listened to Joy Division. Finn knows that, even if those suits like to forget.
The rest of the album is notably more subdued, much like its beginning, than the pulsing middle, and that’s alright, because gives us more notably backward-looking songs of regret and hope. “Riptown” is a song I’m glad glad glad was not a single, because for those who just see the group as Springsteen rips would cite this song first in the argument. “This kid’s a computer who’s been programmed to dream,” it begins, which had me rolling my eyes, but as the song goes on it becomes far smarter and beautiful than it appeared at the outset. Should have seen it coming. This one follows not Finn’s self-insert, but the desperation of a failing actress fading into obscurity. The song ends far more dismally than it begins, with this kid in the red, white, and blue becoming what I believe to be thunder of the same color-scheme.
Anyone who listens to the band knows that their closing tracks always pack a special sort of wallop, but Open Door Policy’s is a real slow burner, which I should have expected, considering the first track is usually so full of life. They appear to be past that now, and I think I’m all over it. “Hanover Camera” begins with a loungey keyboard tune, almost evoking the stupor-y style of “The Feelers,” and it felt like the right way to close out their latest chapter. Once the guitars kick in, it becomes 70s-esque yacht-rock, and when the horns and piano kick in, it becomes dark in a way that we’ve not seen since “Spices” and never before. It ties together the themes of swimming in oblivion, recreational drug use giving way to dependency, the stubborn persistence of memory, and the beauty and ugliness of the sea.
I listened to this album three times the first day it came out--once while writing this review--and I’m confident in saying it’s the best release of 2021 I’ve heard and probably will. It can mop the absolute floor with Thrashing Through the Passion, and it feels great to confidently be able to say that The Hold Steady are back, and now we know how a resurrection really feels. They’re not trying to channel their old style too much. They’re trying new things, and giving a voice to the middle-aged and middle-aged-at-heart in ways that no other band has ever been able to. They guest-starred on Showtime’s Billions recently, as well, which is especially cool considering that success has done nothing to quell their relatability. “Depression is a gift, man,” Finn sings on “Lanyards.” It sure is, Craig. Keep up the great work. No one gets it like you, and in me, you have a fan for life. I strongly suggest that if this at all sounds appealing to you that you check out Open Door Policy. That’s my verdict. It’s a stellar, beautiful album that is as good a case as any that music gets richer with age, and will undoubtedly be a favorite of mine for the rest of my life. “If the band ever plays Resurrection, it’s at the end of the show.” Ain’t that the truth, Craig Finn?
These are my poets.