The Hold Steady's Almost Killed Me is their hands-down masterpiece, at least this far in the career anyway. A swirling maelstrom of intense, hilarious, and breathtaking rock & roll, it should have been the album that knocked everything else into a cocked hat in 2004. Of course, it was mostly ignored outside the homes of a handful of indie snobs and adventurous punks, but it's there, it's amazing, and most likely the band will never be able to top it. Separation Sunday comes pretty damn close, though. It is a much darker record, revolving around drug casualties, broken lives, a hoodrat fixation, spiritual and physical dissipation, and general despair, and there aren't as many easy laughs this time out -- but instead the listener gets lots of head-shaking wonderment at Craig Finn's genius lyrics and voice. His gruff, in-your-ear vocals negotiate the twisting torrent of words like a world-class skater kid. He is insanely literate and insanely insistent: he's like the guy who calls at 2:30 a.m. in a frenzy to holler about his latest disaster of the heart, the bar-stool poet with a religious obsession, or the guy who corners you at a party and just won't shut up about how Boston are the missing link between the Beatles and Derrick May -- only you don't mind because he is strangely brilliant. He is also just about the best rock & roll frontman since Bob Pollard. In fact, the group sounds a bit like Guided By Voices at times, only a Guided By Voices that want to kick your sorry can up and down the length of the bar. Or maybe a GBV that worship Springsteen instead of the Who. Whipping up a classic rock-inspired frenzy of monitor-straddling guitar riffs, dual harmony leads, E Street piano flourishes, and galloping horns, the band behind Finn sounds like nothing less than Jim Steinman's dream group. You could talk about great individual songs (the epic "How a Resurrection Really Feels," the piledriving album opener "Hornets! Hornets!," the weird and almost funky "Charlemagne in Sweatpants"), but the strength of the album is in the flow from song to song and the way the intensity level (which starts off at a near fever pitch) elevates until your head is just about ready to burst from the thrill of it all. Call it a quaint idea in 2005, but Separation Sunday is truly an album, one that sounds almost perfect when played from beginning to end in the proper running order. Block out about 42 minutes sometime, hold steady, and get ready for indie rock -- no, rock & roll -- at its sweatiest, most intense, and most impressive. Long live the album; long live the Hold Steady.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra