The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday

June 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

This is not a review of just an album or even necessarily a review. Think of it as an exploration, if you will, trying to figure out why over the past few months The Hold Steady has become one of my new favorite bands. Certainly, they make good music with, at times, monstrous hooks, but it’s something more. They have it. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that one line or one piece of music that transforms the music into something transcendent, hopeful even. Some bands have this in small quantities, and some, even though they may make great music, don’t have it at all. But The Hold Steady does, and this light pops up in unexpected places in their normally dismal (or triumphant) tales of drugs, alcohol and relationships gone awry.

Most of my love for The Hold Steady springs from their albums Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America. These are also the two albums of theirs I have the most experience with. I hope to, over the next few weeks, do write ups on each of the albums and their moments of profound truth. I’ll start with the albums I know the best which will give me time to listen to the others and form a better opinion.

Craig Finn, leader singer and lyricist, is part genius and part insane. There is a certain poetic brutality to some of his lyrics. At first listen, his lyrics seem to be rambles about partying and living it up. But with repeated, concentrated listens we see Finn is often telling both sides of the story. He does this through a myriad of ways, one of the most prominent being recurring characters, Holly (or Hallelujah), Charlemange and Gideon, that resurface in the lyrics from time to time as we follow their lives.

Holly is the main focus of Separation Sunday, as the album is a loose concept album related to Holly’s life and her eventual return to her church on Easter Sunday. Considering the album ends with “This is How a Resurrection Really Feels” it’s probably the most redemptive of The Hold Steady’s albums. To really understand the story takes some in-depth listening. That’s the beauty of The Hold Steady. You can rock out to their music if you just want to listen to some loud guitars, or if you take a little more time you can peel back the layers of depth underneath the music. Let’s look a little closer at how Separation Sunday manages to tell a story of true redemption amidst a bunch of crap.

Hornets! Hornets! starts off the album giving us a sort of background to Holly and who she is, “She said there’s going to be a time when I’m going to have to go with whoever gets me the highest.” This leads right into Cattle and the Creeping Things which is slathered with religious images, as Holly appears to be going through rehab, where she has discovered God. Filled a plethora of ingenious lyrics such as “I guess I heard about original sin. I heard the dude blamed the chick. I heard the chick blamed the snake. I heard they were naked when they got busted” and “she said: I was seeing double for three straight days after I got born again” the song propels religion into the forefront of this album. Right after this song, the albums swings back to the partying, and continues these drastic swings throughout.

In an interview Craig Finn says this, which I found fascinating and which explains a lot of the struggle between religion and hedonism on Separation Sunday.

You know, so I went on the road, and I brought a bunch of Kerouac stuff. And I think it’s just incredible writing, and beautiful, but one of those things that I thought was interesting was how he was always wrestling with his conservative upbringing. I think a lot of people wrestle with that, and that’s what these characters are doing. They’re swinging wildly between a conservative, religious upbringing and a more hedonistic, desperate lifestyle. (

This phenomenon occurs right away in the next song, Your Little Hoodrat Friend. Talking about Holly, the song says, “Tiny little text etched into her neck that says ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins.’ She’s got blue-black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back, says ‘damn right, He’ll rise again.” Immediately the religious imagery appears again among the “getting plastered” and “getting probed” by the cops. One line in particular points to this mentality that Finn is trying to get at when it says, “I’ve been shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church and I’ve been plowed.” The “searching” here could mean a number of things and that half of what makes Finn’s lyrics so interesting. Searching for God or simply searching for a place to crash until the high wears off?

The album rolls on with Banging Camp, finding our characters searching for redemption among drugs and alcohol as they party along the banks of the river. Charlemange in Sweatpants continues the story, “Holly was supposed to be at CCD but she was down on shady streets…and it’s not like she’s enslaved, it’s more like she’s enthralled.” Here we have Holly skipping out on CCD to go downtown, party and find drugs so she can have a “good time”.

Stevie Nix could be considered the turning point of the album, as the final stanza tells us about Holly’s past and the many things that contribute to her eventual redemption at the end of the album. “She got screwed up by religion, she got screwed by soccer players…she got confused about the truth, she came to in a confession.” All of this could be so easy to miss with the guitars blaring in the background and the beautiful piano solo that leads into and continues throughout this final stanza. Multitude of Casualties tells of how Holly eventually arrives at the end of her rope, ditches her boyfriend (Gideon?) and becomes born again. “While he was down in Lowertown, she was feeling out the 5:30 folk mass…youth services always find a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little messed up teenage life.”

Don’t Let Me Explode and Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night don’t really further Holly’s narrative along much, but they do explain Charlemange’s fate, if you catch the subtle hint to it at the Don’t Let Me Explode.   Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night is interesting due to the numerous religious references that pepper its lyrics, and is a great jam, like most of the songs on the album. But as far as Holly’s story goes, the last two songs on Separation Sunday are by far the most redeeming and interesting.

Crucifixion Cruise despite its under two-minute running time, truly marks Holly’s turn from her former life to grace. “Talking loud over lousy connections, she put her mouth around a difficult question. she said, ‘Lord, what do you recommend to a real sweet girl who’s made some not sweet friends?'” The soft music that swells underneath this declaration stands in contrast to the rather raucous rock ‘n’ roll that has characterized the rest of the album, and really sells this moment. Then, with all the joy that a guitar can muster, comes How a Resurrection Really Feels, crashing into the quiet and delivering Holly’s final message.

She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass…when she said, ‘Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

Holly has returned. Enough said.


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§ One Response to The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday

  • Andrea says:

    I love the Hold Steady and appreciate your exploration of their album. I always have “How a Resurrection Really Feels” on repeat around Easter.

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