After the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, it seemed almost inevitable that the Hold Steady would return to the dollar pitcher fueled, bar-rock stomp of Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. Instead, the freshly made quartet branched out in a slightly different direction for their fifth album, Heaven Is Whenever. Rather than writing another hard rocking novella, the album feels more like the soundtrack to a lonely Midwestern road trip, making it more of a road-weary version of Boys and Girls in America than a re-creation of their earlier work. The album has a quality about it that’s sweeping without being out and out uplifting, feeling more informed by the rigors of touring than the denizens of the Twin Cities and their lapsed Catholic revelations. While some of the characters are still alive and kicking on the album, the focus seems to be more on mood than continuity. The psychic girl and her boyfriend/accomplice from “Chips Ahoy!” reappear on “The Weekenders,” but now we find them more downtrodden as Finn sings “There was a kid camped out by the coat check/She said the theme of this party is the industrial age/You came in dressed like a train wreck.” Tying the songs together are the choruses, which share the same “woah-oh-oh” backing vocals, making “The Weekenders” feel like a downtempo reprise of the first installment of their story. It’s not all tales of the down and out, though. “We Can Get Together” feels like a more romantic, less drug-fueled take on “Hornets! Hornets!,” where an enamored narrator hangs on the every word of his lady, but the slithering guitar riff is replaced by a shimmering ballad, turning a haggard bar crawl into a sweet slow dance. Make no mistake, the rock is still here, but it’s less Thin Lizzy and more Bruce Springsteen. Without the prominent keys of their last two albums, a lot of the heavy lifting is back on the shoulders of guitarist Tad Kubler (whose twisting riff on “The Smidge” is one of his best in years). The big difference between Heaven Is Whenever and the earlier albums is that Kubler seems ready to take on the challenge of creating that emotional weight that the organ and keys brought to the party, using the guitar to create an emotional landscape using a “less is more” approach rather than piling on snarling riffs. While fans expecting the second coming of Almost Killed Me might be disappointed, Heaven Is Whenever shows a band that just isn’t willing to backslide into their old ways, instead opting to continue forward with a reverence for their past work that reminds us of who the Hold Steady were, all the while giving us a glimpse of who they’re going to be.
AllMusic Review by Gregory Heaney