MUSIC: John Reviews “Separation Sunday” by The Hold Steady

Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady

"Separation Sunday" by The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady is, in the words of Red Dwarf‘s Arnold Rimmer, “like a three-fried-egg chili chutney sandwich.” It is a combination of elements that, when taken on their own, usually raise my ire (concept album, vocals spoken rather than sung, a “post-punk” attitude.)  Yet when combined in this particular arrangement, Craig Finn & Co. manage to produce a musical experience that scratches itches I didn’t know I had.

On its surface, “Separation Sunday” has more than a few elements in common with Green Day’s American Idiot“: Both are concept albums that tell over-arching stories featuring religious themes and punk rock influences, but the similarities end there.  Where American Idiot was very radio-friendly and had a sound that varied wildly from track to track, Separation Sunday feels much more like one story told in one voice from beginning to end. There are high-energy rock peaks and slow, haunting troughs, and to isolate one track from the rest would be like tearing one chapter out of a novel and handing it to a new reader; the context would be lost.

Speaking of context: Separation Sunday is, from what I can discern, a story of four disaffected young people searching for meaning, purpose and excitement in 1980s middle America. These characters were introduced in The Hold Steady’s first album, Almost Killed Me, and are as follows:

Craig – the narrator, loosely based on lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Craig Finn.  Craig grew up in suburban Minneapolis, going to “all-ages hardcore matinee shows” and developing a love for punk rock, Springsteen, and the scene.

Gideon – a Catholic skinhead (the working-class kind, not the racist kind,) much of the band’s Catholic allusions/symbols/etc. are shown through Gideon’s actions.    In the same way as the Gideon of the Bible was tasked with bringing the Lord’s followers back onto the righteous path, so does Gideon struggle to find a path for himself and his friends.

Holly (short for Hallelujah) – The album’s protagonist, Holly is a teenage Catholic punk rocker.  She believes in the teachings of the Church and the Scene, trying to find a path that leads from one to the other.

Charlemagne – A drug dealer and pimp, Charlemagne befriends the group and eventually convinces Holly to work for him in exchange for drugs and protection.  He is characterized as being friendly, but ill-intentioned.  Over the course of the album, the characters wrest themselves from Charlemagne’s influence, and it is hinted that he is eventually murdered by his drug-dealing associates.

Confession time: The first time I listened to Separation Sunday, I was very tired and couldn’t keep up with the narrative or distinguish the differences between tracks (as tends to happen when one is drifting out of consciousness.)  I was sharply and delightedly awakened, though, by the album’s final track,  “How A Resurrection Really Feels.”  In addition to serving up the emotionally powerful climax of the story (wherein Hallelujah recovers from the depths of detoxification and depression with a renewed sense of Faith and strong will to survive,) the guitar riffs are some of the most memorable and engaging on the album.  Armed with a full night’s sleep and a newfound love of the band’s sound, I went back and listened to the album again, finding that nearly every track is full of the same punk-influenced rock goodness.  It pulls inspiration from Catholicism, hardcore punk and album/arena rock without actually being any of the above.

The album begins with a fantastic opening line: “She said, ‘Always remember never to trust me.’  Yeah, she said that the first time that she met me.  She said, ‘There’s gonna come a time when I’m gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get me the highest.'”  This opening is immediately followed by the introduction of The Hold Steady’s prominent and flat-out rock ‘n roll guitar riffs, often more memorable on first listen than the vocals.  Many comparisons have been made by other reviewers to artists such as Bruce Springsteen with respect to vocal and guitar arrangements, but I can honestly tell you that I’ve never enjoyed a Springsteen song as much as I enjoy the tracks on Separation Sunday (and I’m a Jersey Boy through and through!)  While The Hold Steady would never be considered a punk or hardcore band, it is obvious that these styles influenced the band’s sound as much as Springsteen and Billy Joel.  There is a maturity to their arrangements that says, “we were really angry and chaotic 15 years ago, and we’ve been learning more and more about music and storytelling every year since.”

Lead singer Craig Finn may have grown into a competent singer over the past few years, but as of this album’s recording and release in 2005 he was still doing more speaking in a slightly sing-song voice than actual singing.  This works perfectly for the album, though, as it reinforces the idea that the whole of Separation Sunday is a semi-autobiographical tale narrated by Finn. Indeed, the songs feel more personal because of it.

I would be remiss not to mention the fantastic piano/keyboard stylings of Mr. Franz Nicolay, who pulls double duty as a member of both The Hold Steady and cabaret-punk sensation The World/Inferno Friendship Society (as well as recording and releasing a solo album.)  Franz’s keys bring a unique background element that adds a layer of depth and complexity to what might otherwise be straightforward rock tracks, whether through traditional ivory-tickling or synthesized gospel rock organ.  The only thing he doesn’t do on the album is play the melancholy accordion, an instrument he apparently saves for his time in W/IFS.

Music criticism is difficult, in large part because the medium of expression lacks many of the elements of the medium being criticized.  You know what I think and how I feel about the album, but As Billy Joel says, “You can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.”  With that in mind, I point you to a couple of links where you can get a taste of Separation Sunday for yourself:

  The Hold Steady plays the opening track, “Hornets! Hornets!” live.

  A professional-quality recording of The Hold Steady playing “How A Resurrection Really Feels” live.

If you like what you hear, pick up the album.  I daresay you won’t be disappointed. (and by the way, you can tell they’re extremely talented by the fact that there’s not one good-lucking guy in the band, with the possible exception of Franz Nicolay.  This is not music for beautiful people, it’s music for all the losers and outcasts with hearts of gold and scars that remind them of a youth well-misspent.)

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