I’m just ten posts in, and I’ve already evoked Bruce Springsteen in about a third of them. While this may seem excessive (or just lazy) I would say that I’m refering to him because he is the most easily identifiable in a slew of artistists that attempt to capture an American heartland sensibility that, while I’m certain doesn’t really exist anymore, may never have existed at all. I say Springsteen, and you think immediately of character-driven narrative songs about small towns, the allure of the city, and the period in your life where youth slips into adulthood, sometimes without notice, sometimes painfully. He’s a storyteller trying to encapsulate some of the angst and uncertainty of his own generation and of young adulthood generally. His goal is narrative with an emotional connection – and this sets him apart from the crowd. His goal is not rock for the sake of it, or introspection-as-art, or experimental noodling. He lacks the self-conscious irony that so often just marrs my enjoyment of what might otherwise be a good rock n’ roll song.
He’s got contemporaries – Tom Petty, The Band, Steve Earle. And boy, does he have followers. Social Distortion, The Gaslight Anthem, The Constantines, and (now I’m getting to it) The Hold Steady.
The Hold Steady rose to prominance a few years after The Strokes “saved” guitar rock back in 2001. This is just speculation, but I think indie rock listeners had gotten tired of the wave of bands that followed in the footsteps of The Strokes – bands like Franz Ferdinand, Ima Robot, Interpol, etc, who were all haircuts and outfits and New York cool. The Hold Steady come from the midwest, and proudly. They mine the narrative song, but they do it a little differently. “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right,” Craig Finn laments at the beginning of Stuck Between Stations from their record Boys and Girls in America, “Boys and Girls in America are so sad together.” besides beat literature, their songs are full of references to New American Cinema, national landmarks, and legendary musicians. They stitch these images into worlds that appeal to the consciously cultured youth, the sideways references making listeners feel as if they belong in the America that The Hold Steady sings about, and not the more depressing real one. However, other than being a little self-conscious, these songs brim with an honesty and optimism that was totally lacking in the New York rock revivial of the early oughts.
Later this month, Craig Finn is releasing his first solo record. In interviews, he’s commented that the songs are overall more personal, which is certainly a change for the songwriter who is renowned for telling complex character stories. Contrary to this claim though, Jackson off of Clear Heart Full Eyes (a reference to the show Friday Night Lights) tells the story of Jackson, Stephanie, and the narrator getting into hot water while staying in a hotel from August to November. This version is stripped down and acoustic, recorded in Craig Finn’s own house by The A.V. Club. The ominous repetative chords and the drone strings echo the foreboding in the lyrics. The song is both a confession and a denial of involvement, which is sort of evocative of the way people deal with “incidents” in a small town. In between verses that paint stark and vivid pictures( i.e., “Jackson was an actor, ‘least he was when he was well, Stephanie was good to me, not so much to herself”), Craig questions the listener in the chorus, “So why’re you asking ’bout Jackson? It was a long time ago, nothing really happened.” Without the full rock band of the hold steady behind him, it’s just Finn’s lyrics that get to shine, and they more than stand on their own.
There. I wrote the whole thing without mentioning Nebraska.