The Hold Steady: Stay Positive

July 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

It becomes increasingly more obvious as Stay Positive continues that it has a different tone than the first three albums from The Hold Steady. For lack of a better word, sometimes it feels downright positive, even though lead singer Craig Finn is still chronicling the same stories he always has been. But on Stay Positive it seems as if some of the kids Finn has been writing about have finally grown up and are looking back on their teenage years. They see the good and the bad and they recognize how these things have shaped them, but they also take notice of those people that never grew up. The stories about these people and their wasted potential might be some of the saddest Finn has ever penned.

The record’s really about aging gracefully and I keep coming back to that because rock ‘n’ roll is a tough business to age gracefully in. It’s tough being thirty-six and doing it for a living, and wanting to be an adult and a respectable person who’s able to communicate with other people in other parts of society and not just be rock ‘n’ roll all the time, you know? So it’s a struggle to be happy where you’re at as a grown-up and also hold on to some of your youthful ideals.-Craig Finn, talking about Stay Positive (http://www.aquariumdrunkard.com/2008/06/27/craig-finn-the-hold-steady-ad-interview-pt-1/)

Growing up is hard, but necessary. This seems to be the theme of Stay Positive, and it’s evident from the album’s first track, Constructive Summer. Initially, the burst of punk energy that is Constructive Summer seems to be an ode to getting hammered and living it up on those late summer nights. And in some ways it is, but it’s really an exuberant anthem dedicated to a life full of promise, provided one takes hold of the promise offered. The song ends with the declaration, “We are our only saviors, let’s build something this summer.” Is Finn advocating that there is no divine salvation, or does he mean that we alone are responsible for our decisions and therefore, in a sense, direct our lives? If I had to choose, I would suggest that Finn is hinting at the latter, especially when this line is viewed in context with rest of the song. Earlier Finn sings, “This whole town is lifeless, it’s been that way our whole lives, work at the mill until you die.” I think he is suggesting that we have a choice to continue living in a lifeless town or to do something constructive.

It seems like this is what Finn has always been talking about. He never gives his characters excuses for their behavior, but shows their consequences. There always seems to be a choice for his characters and, by extension, for us his audience. We see the good and the bad, and must ask ourselves if we are taking advantage of our lives and aging gracefully. In Lord, I’m Discouraged Finn shows the toll that having friends who have become depressed or addicted to substances can have on a person. In some of the most heartfelt lines on the album he sings, “I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine, so I mostly just pray she don’t die.” Funny, it seems like I’ve prayed that latter part before. The choices we make just don’t affect ourselves, but can have devastating effects on others.

There are two keys songs on Stay Positive that illustrate the struggle and necessity of growing up, and I want to highlight them. Stepping out of story mode, the title track seems almost autobiographical. Imparting wisdom gained from his years growing up Finn sounds downright fatherly at times, especially when he sings, “There’s going to come a time when the true scene leaders will forget where the differ and get big picture. Cause the kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own.” It’s Finn’s dream of the unified scene, happening because the kids grew up and realized there is more to life than fighting over things that were never that important to begin with.

Then there’s Joke About Jamaica, a sobering/rocking meditation about then versus now. It begins as a story of a girl who used to flirt with the boys and never had to pay for her drinks, which transforms as she gets older. Now none of the boys make eye contact with her and the new bands are louder, but she doesn’t want to grow up.  “Back then it was beautiful…we were all invincible,” sings Finn, acquiescing to the fact that this invincibility is nothing more than a facade erected by youth and alcohol. Part of growing up is this realization that we aren’t invincible, but the hard part is keeping a youthful perspective about it all, as Finn alludes to in the interview quoted earlier. It’s a depressing, but hopeful revelation to realize your own mortality.

The album, however, ends on a high note, preserving the optimism of Constructive Summer but also incorporating the wisdom of Stay Positive. Slapped Actress is an epic song, grandiose in its musical presentation and in its lyrics comparing our lives to a cinematic production. It concludes with this line, “Man, we make our own movies.” The album has returned full circle. Ultimately, we are responsible for the choices we make. We may not be able to control our circumstances, good or bad, but we can control how we react to them.

“Man, we make our own movies.”

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