After a couple rough albums without their trademark keyboardist, The Hold Steady are back in the swing of things with Thrashing Thru the Passion, a reminder of everything we loved about the band plus some places where they’ve room to grow. Long-time fans praise The Hold Steady’s hard rock guitar and nasally yet vaguely Wilde-ian lyrics by singer Craig Finn. Thrashing has those benchmarks as well as a more upbeat tone that gives things an occasional sock hop vibe. Maybe the less dirge-like, solipsistic ballads are a symptom of Trump’s America, where suddenly getting drunk and strung out in a bar seems like a fine solution rather than a reason for introspection. Regardless of the reason behind the band’s push toward positivity, the lighter tone feels mostly appropriate as contrast to all the darkness in the world.
It’s been eleven years since The Hold Steady told us to “Stay Positive” in the album of the same name, but this might be their first album that actually sounds cheery. Thrashing lacks the invocation to change your mood and change the world. Instead it’s a bit of an ephemeral distraction to help you keep your mind off the long drive ahead. Of course, Finn can’t help but give us a couple of lyrical gems along the way, but few are as powerful or potent as the freewheeling Ulysses-esque ramblings of Separation Sunday. The overall album lacks the dynamism and myriad viewpoints found in Boys and Girls in America. This feels like the band as a whole, rather than just Finn, suggesting a modern mentality to get us through the rough times without necessarily demanding our adherence to it. It’s the vibe of a barroom band who’s glad you’re here but won’t demand that you listen or sing along. If you do decide to put in the effort, you’ll be rewarded.
There are moments of classic Craig Finn cleverness. “Wherever he goes he always orders the usual / He likes to see what they’ll bring him.” That’s such a pure setup in “Denver Haircut” it could segue right into some stand-up. Track two, “Epaulets,” is so jaunty it might have bop-bopped right off the Grease soundtrack. Track three, “You Did Good Kid” fills that “Stay Positive” invocation hole, but is intended to be reassuring rather than persuasive. The “Joke About Jamaica” style thrumming in the background reminds us that reassurance comes after trauma, but the chanting of the band lets us know we’re not alone.
Other tracks aren’t quite as memorable but contain key phrases so cool you cut the band slack. “Traditional Village” is a great notion, as is “Entitlement Crew,” even if the songs that go with them sound a little bit like knock-offs. “Blackout Sam” isn’t quite the soul-crushing waltz found in previous albums, but it ends with the cute couplet, “Local legends with the faraway eyes / I wanna make you feel protected and high.” “T-Shirt Tux” begins with some killer lyrics then meanders. Its manic-depressive melody gets a little Reel Big Fish at times. “Star 18” is a much better track that walks the tightrope between darkness and light, though its guitar solo is like waiting for a kitten to roar. It’s a bummer considering the way the lyrics flow and fit together like Almost Killed Me or Lifter Puller. “The Stove & The Toaster” feels like a swing at Boys and Girls in America style but lacks originality like the other weaker tracks.
Thrashing Thru the Passion rounds out with a very interesting track called “Confusion in the Marketplace” which sounds a bit like a song that would play over the credits in an 80’s movie. It feels so conclusive and correct that it makes the rest of the album feel more substantial than it is. It’s a testament to how much song placement can affect an album’s vibe. If “Confusion” were track one, you might think you were in for The Hold Steady’s greatest, most operatic triumph, but instead we’re left with the implication that the band’s greatest days may be ahead of them yet. Not a bad feeling, but bittersweet given how long we’ve been waiting for that sweet fleeting feeling to return.