You’ve Gotta Stay Positive

The fourth release from Brooklyn’s own The Hold Steady will be on the shelves in a matter of weeks, and an early spin or twenty reveals one thing… this is NOT Boys & Girls In America. In Stay Positive we see the band dive into the darker side of love and the shattered lives it can often leave behind. As if transported back to the days of Separation Sunday, Finn’s lyrics are particularly rooted in Christian iconography, perhaps more than ever before. The nature of sex, relationships, drugs and rock & roll takes form in messengers from Jesus Christ to Judas Iscariot, with innocence dying on a crucifix in the back of a bar in Ybor City.

The vibrant opening number, “Constructive Summer,” seems at first glance to be a Springsteen-esque ode to splitting from a small town and starting a new life (think “Born to Run” meets “No Surrender”). However, looking deeper into the content, it becomes apparent that these characters are never getting out. They raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer, whom the narrator refers to as his only great teacher, while their friends work in the mill until they die. The cast of characters sits atop a water tower, promising that this will be the year that they escape this town with their drums and their guitars, but realize that it will never happen, as this is their annual reminder that we can all be something bigger. It’s a beautiful slice of Rural America, lost and dreaming big, drowning in alcohol and finding their lone moment of greatness atop the town’s water tower.

From there we’re cast into the album’s debut single, possibly the catchiest and most rousing song we’ve yet heard from the band. “Sequestered in Memphis” is the slightly amusing story of a businessman working down south, finding himself enamored with a young lady that in bar light/she looked alright/in daylight/she looked desperate. As you would imagine, the story spirals into a mess of drug running, arrests and one poor bastard unintentionally trapped in the center. It’s at this moment that the whimsy begins to step out of the limelight.

The center of Stay Positive, the emotional and literal core of the album, is dark and brooding. In song after song, we are introduced to tragic characters, lost loves, drugs, pain and loneliness. In “One for the Cutters,” we’re told the story of a young girl arriving wide-eyed for her first year at what I suspect is the University of Indiana. Her life begins normally enough, but soon evolves into a second life completely hidden from her friends and family as she finds comfort in the company of local stone cutters. Eventually she becomes trapped in a world of violence and addiction, losing (or finding, depending on perspective) herself and returning home to parents that barely recognize their own daughter. It is at the end of the song that the true agony of the situation becomes strikingly apparent. Finn, howling like a messenger from God to a naïve parent begs the question:

Mom do you know where your girl is?/Sophomore accomplice in a turtleneck sweater

Dad do you know where your kids are?/Sniffing that crystal in cute little cars/Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars

It’s a cute little town/Chic with cafes/Her friends all seemed nice/She was getting good grades

But when she came home for Christmas/She just seemed distant and different

It’s when we reach the track “Lord, I’m Discouraged” that the narrator’s tone shifts from one of an observer to that of the heartbroken participant. There may be no greater pain than that of unrequited love, unless it’s watching the subject of your affection falling apart before your eyes. The voice echoes the prayer of a man, burning candles and begging God to deliver unto him the woman that he loves as she struggles with a violent, self-destructive substance abuse problem. Even upon countless listens, it’s nearly impossible not to feel your own heart break as the audible sadness in a voice says to God:

Can’t you hear her?/ She’s that sweet, missing songbird when the choir sings on Sunday

And I’m almost busted but I bought back the jewelry she sold

And I come to your alter/But then there’s just nothing

And she keeps insisting that the sutures and bruises are none of my business

She says she’s sick/But won’t be specific

As the song pours out over a raucous guitar, then into a tender bridge, the heartfelt agony of a man losing the one he loves to forces beyond his control echoes in the sentiment: I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine/So I mostly just pray she don’t die.

Shortly thereafter we encounter the immensely complex, epic centerpiece of the album… the almost impenetrably cryptic “Two Crosses.” Repeated listens reveal more questions than answers as the dense poetry wraps around a dark, multi-layered musical track that feels like a long drive in an old car on a deserted stretch of rural highway. You can almost feel the pale skinned brunette sitting next to you, the moon occasionally illuminating the rosary hanging provocatively between her breasts. It’s in this track that we see the full breadth of Craig Finn’s power to turn a phrase, causing with each listen an entirely perspective to open before the audience. Heavy on symbolism, “Two Crosses” is the tale of innocence lost, crucified by lovers and crushing the protagonist (who, depending on your take on the story could easily be the antagonist).

Let’s clutch and kiss and sing and shake/now let’s try to levitate/you catholic girls start much too late/now baby let’s transverberate, begins one verse, seemingly echoing Satan’s offering to the innocent. The use of the word “transverberate” takes on an obvious sexual connotation, becoming even more interesting when moments later she speaks of witnessing an angel plunge a sword into a man’s side, reminiscent of the final blow to Christ in the last seconds of the crucifixion. She mourns the fact that I’ve been mostly dying/And I’ve been mostly coughing/And I’ve been mostly crying/And I’ve been thinking ’bout both crosses, as she reunites with Jesus (despite a plea from her friend) who informs her that he too has been thinking about both crosses. The track plays out more like an epic tragedy than a five minute rock song, feeling like the haunting prequel to Separation Sunday.

After spending hours with “Two Crosses,” we are lifted from the fuzzy, dreamlike themes and into a rollicking bar anthem, the type of which that only The Hold Steady currently seems capable of providing. The track, “Stay Positive” is a stadium rock styled love song packed with warnings to modern scenesters throughout the world. On an album filled with the bitter side of love, the title track is an exploration of the bitter side of loving music. While Finn reminisces on his younger days, when bands like 7 Seconds and Youth of Today taught him some of life’s most valuable lessons, he warns of the eventual demise of any real music scene. In essence: you’re getting older and your scene is going to die. Still never shying away from Christian allegory, the song compares the rock club to the church, suggesting that the kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own/the sing along songs will be our scriptures. It’s one of the few truly uplifting moments of the album, the idea that everything will eventually work out with a little determination and positivity.

From there we find ourselves in the finale, a triple-shot of “Magazines,” “Joke About Jamaica” and “Slapped Actress,” three powerful works studying three different individuals, one male, one female and one completely left up to your own interpretation. In “Magazines,” the lovelorn boyfriend finds himself dealing with an overbearing, unfaithful, egomaniacal alcoholic hell bent to make her trades on adoration. We learn that she’s always funny in the morning/she isn’t always funny in the night/once she gets a couple drinks in she’s probably gonna tell you you ain’t doin’ anything right/then you’ll roll your eyes/then you’ll probably fight, but more importantly, each verse illustrates how truly in love with her this man has fallen. Through the fights, the cheating and the heartbreak he finds himself repeating, Magazines and daddy issues/I know you’re pretty pissed/I hope you’ll still let me kiss you.

It’s then that we find ourselves in a borderline psychedelic world, heavily peppered with Led Zeppelin references, eerie surf-guitar riffs and a nearly “November Rain” interplay of piano and guitar. “Joke About Jamaica,” an obvious reference to Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” tells the story of an aging hipster losing her place in the scene that she has called home for nearly all of her adult life. She recounts the days past, whimpering that back then it was beautiful/the boys were sweet and musical/the laser lights looked mystical/messed up stuff felt magical/the girls didn’t seem so difficult/the boys didn’t seem so typical/it was warm and wide and wonderful/we were all invincible. As she waxes nostalgic, she observes the world around her, how things are changing and how the boys are getting younger and the bands are getting louder/and the new girls are coming up like some white unopened flowers.

This loss of her rightful place in a world now populated by strange faces and hangers on leads to an eventual near breakdown as the song’s end approaches. She bemoans what she has lost, what she has sacrificed, never seeming to realize that while her scene has changed, it is now their scene and she is now in fact the hanger on. It’s the second side to the coin we were shown with “Stay Positive,” the vision of what’s left in a scene when some forget to grow up… a grown woman eating in her car, her youth fading and her place being taken by a new crop of girls. It’s the pain of realizing one’s own irrelevance to a life that once meant so much to them, fading away instead of burning out.

The album’s closer gives us a glimpse into the life of one of life’s “secret romances.” One member of a couple instructs another on secret after secret, things that must be kept under wraps for various reasons, as the other seemingly goes along for the ride.

Don’t drop little hints/I don’t want them to guess

Don’t mention Tampa/they’ll just know all the rest

Don’t mention bloodshed/don’t tell them it hurts

Don’t tell them we saw angels/they’ll take us straight to the church

The story unfolds as the two begin to realize that the image they put forth to the public is nothing more than a show, theater for the masses so eager to gobble up the spectacle. They aren’t living their lives; they are playing the roles of characters that are living their lives. The brief moments of clarity espoused by the narrator (We are the theater/they are the people/We are projectors/we’re hosting a screening) are immediately buried in a deluge of hush-hush secrets with an ever-growing intensity, eventually boiling into tragedy as Finn declares that sometimes actresses get slapped. Visually, the crushing feeling of a world peering in on a relationship that technically doesn’t exist seems to reach its pinnacle with the line: they queue up for tickets/to see the performance/they push to get closer/looking upwards with wonder. The song ends largely unresolved, disappearing into a swell of piano and eventual A cappella chorus of oohs and ahhs.

It’s only after writing this, reviewing the songs and glancing back at the text that I came to a rather striking realization. In track after track, I managed to apply gender to characters that often had none assigned, or in some cases were clearly of an opposite sex. While pulling this album tightly through my mind throughout the last week, I found these characters not to be figments of someone’s imagination, but rather people that I know. I associated names and faces with song after song, having known someone in nearly every single circumstance described above. The tracks contained on Stay Positive had ceased to be stand-alone accounts of stories spun by a wordsmith from Minneapolis; they had become my memories, grafting themselves to story after story of my own life and the lives of so many others.

If for no other reason, this is why The Hold Steady are special. While writing about tragic romance is certainly not a new innovation, capturing it so eloquently in a way that cuts straight into your heart and soul is a rare ability. These aren’t superstars moping about loss while shining their Bentley, these aren’t angsty teen heartthrobs yet to experience their first real broken heart, these are grown men… grown men that have lived and seen more of what life can really be than “the industry” could ever generate. If it seems real, if it seems personal, or if it seems to often hit a little too close to home, remember these words from Craig Finn:

A great American philosopher named D. Boon once said ‘Our band could be your life.’ I think that is true. But ‘Your Life could be Our Band’ is also a true statement. I know this because we have lived it. These are our lives. These are your lives. This is our fourth record. Stay Positive.


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One Response to “You’ve Gotta Stay Positive”

  1. Kevin Says:

    I am not what you would call a fan of this band. Cory has long preached the power of The Hold Steady, and while I acknowledge they are a fantastic live act (their energy is contagious) I have always been underwhelemed by their studio albums.

    Until now.

    “Stay Positive” is, in a word, aobuadoguaogugadbkadhgoafadjkflasdf.

    (That’s what “breath-taking” sounds like).

    There really isn’t a bad track on the album, and unlike many works from contemporary artists, these truly is an “album” in the truest form. It unfolds like a novel, chapter after chapter, layers piling up, both lyrically and musically.

    It is clearly one of the best albums of 2008.

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