My high hopes for The Hold Steady's Teeth Dreams have largely been realised - and 2014 has finally delivered some classic songwriting for me to enthuse about.
It's great to have a new record from this band, after about a four year gap. No-one else has quite the same combination of power chords, punch-the-air choruses and (shaggy-dog-) story-telling lyrics. And, on top of the record, they've just been added to the bill for Brighton's Great Escape festival, so I hope to see them live for the first time next month.
Front man Craig Finn might look more like a middle-manager than a rock god, but he can give the best account of the redemptive potential of the music this side of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. 'We've gotta stay positive', as he famously sang on the band's 2008 album of that name and he still generally does, despite a lyrical predilection for picaresque tales of losers and lowlife. He's 42 now and came to the classic rock stylings which inform his writing via the likes of Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, growing up in Minneapolis, which is still the setting for many of his songs. There has always been a slightly punky, eighties edge to the band, though they do seem consciously to have gone for a more consistently rock feel to the current album. I have some issues with the limited-palette production, particularly with the way Finn's voice is back in the mix and often heavily echoed: you sometimes need the lyric sheet to work out what's going on - and that's silly when the words are as good as they often are. Never mind: do what it takes.
If you don't know the band, let me recommend two songs from Teeth Dreams as a fine entry point. (If you do know the band, you're probably already raving about them too.)
'Big Cig' (listen here) makes me want to bounce around in a way which I entirely understand is both unseemly and unwelcome to the world at large. The mix of scything chords, feedback, pounding drums and shouted-along backing vocals is right up my street, but listen to the words: a self-deprecating account of a relationship, the importance of which the protagonist can't quite bring himself to admit to...
She's a girl 'with burns on her skirt and smoke in her eyes' who likes long cigarettes because they're better value:
I know that's she's gorgeous.
I can't take her serious.
She looks kind of ridiculous
With her Malibu 120s.
The singer acknowledges that 'she can probably find a better guy', but that doesn't matter because:
It's not love.
It's not even a crush.
We don't believe him, of course.
On to 'Almost Everything' - my song of the year, so far. (Listen and watch here.) Chiming acoustics, instead of the album's mostly electric guitars. No drums. It's a lovely collection of life-on-the-road set-pieces:
The bus it rolled up into Franklin at dawn and everything seemed super slo-mo
The Waffle House waitress that asked us if we were Pink Floyd.
Finn could be singing about a particular relationship within that tour-bus setting or talking more about his feelings about performing and his audience. The imagery works fine both ways:
Yeah, there are nights I get terrified.
I'm sure you get terrified too.
So, hey, won't you show me a sign
If I'm getting through to you.
I'm still pretty into you.
There's an impressive amount of narrative substance in the song's 4 minutes 17. A hospital admission; one of those rambling conversations we've all had about 'movies and Krishna and hardcore and Jesus and joy'; a medical emergency where 'the kid who went down isn't dead, he just can't find his phone'. But the very best bit of the lyric, which I can't help grinning at even as I write it down, is an account of a cinema visit along the way. With my limited exposure to popular culture, I'm not even sure if it's describing a real film - it should be:
Went to some movie. It was loud, dumb and bloody.
The third act took place in a wormhole.
The hero ascended to heaven.
Then we headed home.
The Hold Steady are one of those bands who I think should be a lot bigger than they are. I assumed Stay Positive would be the breakthrough album, their equivalent of REM's Green. That didn't happen, and now they're on to the equivalent of Monster. That album wasn't perfect, of course, but rocked out splendidly with plenty of verve and wit. The same is true of Teeth Dreams. Give it a go.