Listening to The Hold Steady’s fourth album “Stay Positive,” one cannot help but draw comparisons to rock predecessors like Bruce Springsteen & the E. Street Band. And while some critics find The Hold Steady’s unapologetically classic rock sound to be a blatant rip-off of music from a bygone era, this reviewer begs to differ. While indie bands today scrounge the earth for exotic instruments and try to blend genres in order to differentiate themselves from the pack, The Hold Steady return to rock’s roots – loud, joyous guitar riffs, propulsive drums and gruff vocals—that’s what makes its music so damn refreshing.
“Stay Positive,” however, does have its bouts with experimentation: the sharp, biting harpsichord that buoys the verses and complements the disturbing narrative of “One for the Cutters,” and the acoustic guitars and banjo that grumble and sting on the folk-inflected “Both Crosses.” Though it’s exciting to hear the band’s versatility, the strength of “Stay Positive” rests on its rockers.
The lead single, “Sequestered in Memphis,” tells the tale of a one-night stand in Tennessee driven by shimmering electric guitars and keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s organ. “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” perhaps lead singer and primary songwriter Craig Finn’s finest moment, is a gorgeous slow-tempo ballad about an innocent girl led astray and the protagonist’s struggle with faith as a result.
Even when the music grows tired, which is on rare occasion, it’s Finn’s superb storytelling and distinctive voice that continue to captivate. One of the most gifted lyricists in the rock milieu today, Finn documents the dazed existence of our generation’s boozehounds and party girls with an acute poetic eye that’s never condescending, but always inspired.