If the Hold Steady quit after 2006's magnificent Boys and Girls in America, no one could have blamed them. After all, they had recorded three brilliant records. In 2004, THS issued the guttersnipe punk meets classic rock Almost Killed Me -- recorded mostly live since the band had little wherewithal in using a studio. They upped the ante with Separation Sunday, where songwriter Craig Finn's post-Catholic guilt and confusion led to lyric lines that were pregnant with self-mythologizing. The melodies were more intricate, the guitars referenced Led Zeppelin and Cheap Trick, and the stories about himself with busted heroines and drunken heroes -- all fallen former Catholic angels -- were as memorable as the Beat Generation icons rock & roll immortalized. Finally, 2007's Boys and Girls in America added new studio savvy -- along with the same crazy energy and chanted refrains that referenced more than just rock & roll clichés (they hinted at the confused self-mirroring universe Finn was trying to figure out) -- and an expanded band sound (with keyboards no less) drawing from Thin Lizzy's dual lead guitars, the Replacements, Led Zeppelin, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen of the '70s. Over three records, they'd done almost everything. To boot, they had a smoking live show that captured everything they did on record even better.
Released in 2008, Stay Positive is the most sophisticated and erudite THS have ever sounded, and that's a mixed blessing. Where every song on previous sets felt unfinished and open-ended, these tracks are sheen-polished and almost slick. They reveal growth and studio expertise but also a kind of laziness. These 12 songs are full of near-cinematic rock dynamism and expertly rendered sonic effects. The Led Zep insider jokes are abundant in both lyrics and music, and the E Street Band's Darkness on the Edge of Town epic rock is channeled to alternately stunning and irritating degrees. The random reckless energy of the earlier album trilogy has been replaced -- mostly -- by tucked corners and smoothed edges. For instance, the harpsichord on "One for the Cutters" is dreadful; it dulls the impact of Finn's searing words that reference characters from his previous songs. One wonders if this is attempted irony, blunted personal pain, or both. Production aside, Finn's words and melodies have grown in depth without losing their immediacy. On album opener "Constructive Summer," the huge guitars of Stiff Little Fingers circa Nobody's Heroes meet the young wistful Van Morrison of "Brown Eyed Girl." But there's a twist: the protagonist is an American adult male trapped in adolescence, living in nowheresville; he seeks something worth remembering from all the blackouts and wasted life -- the romance of myth is displaced by false promises dictated by fear and self-deceit. He raises a toast to "...Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been the only decent teacher/Getting older makes it harder to remember/We are our only saviors/We're gonna build something this summer." The chorus offers a confusing, jokey chanted chorus (à la the Adolescents) that adds dimensionally to the loss here. "Navy Sheets" references four tracks on Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy: "Dy'er Maker," "The Ocean,""The Crunge," and the song itself from Physical Graffiti. But the piano in the wonderful "Sequestered in Memphis" -- channeling the E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan -- is very effective; it introduces the tune before a B-3 and a tenor saxophone move against the guitars to create an unholy union between story-song and mid-level punk anthem. But Finn and company save two of the best tunes for last in "Joke About Jamaica" and "Slapped Actress." Their drama, raw and incessant energy, and musical sophistication all come together in two songs that are less studied and calculated. There is an uneasy balance between "finished" big-time rock and the wily, playful freedom of "arena rock in my basement"; humor is maintained amid the darkness and Finn's self-referential mythology unwinds itself into even greater insight. Irony abounds, finally, in that even if it's the Hold Steady's least enjoyable recording, Stay Positive will break this band on the charts nationally.