Separation Sunday

The Hold Steady’s debut was a rocking fury that ham-fistedly hammered its way into my most favorite and repeatedly rotated record of 2004. Arriving around wit’s end and hangover’s habituation, Almost Killed Me soundtracked a sorry time of chemicals competing for lapsed love’s lost ascendency. The irony is that in a way I think it saved or at the very least sustained me with lines like “certain songs they get so scratched into our souls” allowing me to feel a little less alone. And I can’t count the waves of disappointment kept abated by the phrasing of “this was supposed to be a party.”

I feel it fit to be forthright about all this as impartiality is impossible when assessing their sophomore effort, Separation Sunday. I should also address the fact that when The Hold Steady finally made their way out to L.A., they staged the single most enthralling show I’ve seen yet this year. Well in advance of their second record, I returned from that performance proclaiming that The Hold Steady were about to drop the most unlikely and awesome amalgamation of Aerosmith, The Archers of Loaf, and Bringing It All Back Home. So it’s not just out of admiration that my assessment is impaired; I’ve also risked my reputation on their success.

It was with a heavy heart then that I first heard Separation Sunday and found myself somewhat disappointed. Though there was some semblance of sameness there was something just amiss. I pondered this as I played the album over many several times.

Eventually I recalled that Almost Killed Me took some time to sink in too. At first that record stank of butt rock and the lack of melody left me cold. But soon enough I realized those rock clichés were really strengths and those long and convoluted lines were just too inspired to be restrained by any overt tunefulness. What I’d try to enjoy as any other indie album was really more appropriately appreciated as a cross between the rock riffs of early AC/DC and the relentless lyrical onslaught of Ghostface.

With Separation Sunday, The Hold Steady have refined and redefined that aesthetic to such an extent that they sound almost like a different band. This new sound differs not so much in mindset as intent. The bar band riffing and lyrical dexterity are back, but they’ve both moved on up from CBGB’s to E Street. With the dynamic shifting from a band fronted by Craig Finn to a band backing Craig Finn, the focus is all on his songwriting. Though there are more than a few meaty moments of hipster heshing, they never overwhelm the wordsmithed wonders of Craig’s midwestern mind.

This is simultaneously less and more of what I wanted from The Hold Steady. While Finn has really outdone himself as a writer, he does so by underselling himself as a rocker. “Hornets! Hornets!” comes across sounding stiff and not nearly as exclamatory as its punctuation suggests and “Crucifixion Cruise” abandons the guitars they once swore they’d never turn down for a slow rolling organ drone. Still both songs ring resplendent with lines like “I have to try so hard not to fall in love, I have to concentrate when we kiss” and “she climbed the cross and found she liked the view.”

In sacrificing rock for wordplay, Craig has lapsed back to the strengths of his last band, the criminally obscure Lifter Puller. Less introspective and more narrative, any personal perspective in these songs emerges through the guise of another character entirely. These characters pop in and out, sometimes only under an alias that won’t be revealed until later if ever. This referential quality as well as Craig’s alliteration inclination makes for a uniquely obsessive kind of songwriting yielding as many twists and puzzles as there are hooks and quotables.

This again is more and less of what I loved about Almost Killed Me. While it’s thrilling to hear Craig indulge in his own idiosyncratic muse, I also miss the more personal approach to the debut. Hearing about Holly coming to in the confession booth and “smiling on an abscessed tooth” is affecting for sure, but may be not so much as Craig claiming he was a “twin cities trash bin” doing “everything they’d give” him.

Ultimately this all proves to be the difference between a band that opened their first record claiming “I got bored when I didn’t have a band, so I started a band” to a band that opens up a record with a story and proceeds to tell the tale of one girl, a few guys, and a lot of drugs over the next ten tracks. Separation Sunday is a much more focused record than Almost Killed Me and it’s clear the band has finally settled into an aesthetic they’re happy to claim as their own. It is the difference between Ill Communication and Check Your Head and as with those records, my preference is always with the one where the band wasn’t quite yet confident in what they were doing. That fire from the fight against a fervent fear of failure never quite translates to the more refined and established sequel.

All that aside, Separation Sunday is very much the masterwork I had heralded it to be. It does indeed sound a lot like The Archers of Loaf playing Dylan songs in the style of Toys in the Attic-era Aerosmith. That fusion of such disparate styles is worthy enough of acclaim; the fact that they are blended into such an appealing arrangement is justification of the nigh classic status this album is on its way to attaining. Although not exactly what I’d hoped it would be, Separation Sunday is sure to be one of the most exciting and adventurous records of the year.

Listen to "Little Hoodrat Friend" - easily one of the best singles of the year - and only the second or third best song on the record...

Buy Separation Sunday now from French Kiss Records

See The Hold Steady live