The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America

July 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together…crushing each other with colossal expectations.”

You could make a case for Stuck Between Stations as being one of the best songs on Boys and Girls in America but when you have this many good songs on an album, why quibble? As the frenetic keyboard of Franz Nicolay swarms through Finn’s vocals you already know that this album is something special. It’s strange how easy it is for me to identify with The Hold Steady, considering that during my teenage years, I didn’t do any of the things they sing about. But there are certain things that are universal to being a teenager in America, trying to grow up in a country that places such large expectations on its youth, which we in turn place upon ourselves.

If one pays attention to the Hold Steady’s discography there is a clear thematic progression from their debut Almost Killed Me to their latest album Heaven is Whenever. That theme is growing up. Almost Killed Me is full of tales of parties, whereas Separation Sunday deals with redemption and religion amidst the parties. Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever both deal with the consequences of these actions and the slow realization that responsibility eventually comes along with life. And with this responsibility comes some wisdom gathered from failures and successes (more on this in weeks to come). Boys and Girls in America is the transitional album between these, as it seeks to find out how this transition takes place and while doing this it delivers some beautiful insight into the growing us process.

I don’t pretend that I’ve fully grown up, so in many senses there are still things in my life that resonate with Finn’s lyrics. Not necessarily with the specific circumstances but with the emotions behind them. I know the colossal expectations us boys place on the girls and in many cases the colossal pressure girls place on guys. And I also know the expectations we place on ourselves.

There are songs like Party Pit, Massive Nights and Hot Soft Light that tap into the joyful invincibility of teenage years. You can hear it as Finn sings. Those years when you don’t want anyone telling you what to do and when you think you know everything. When you have your first girlfriend and you are absolutely convinced that nothing would ever make you break up, even though everyone older than you says otherwise. You feel like you can defy the entire world, until you learn that you can’t.

This is something Craig Finn seems to know well as these odes to parties and good times are broken up by songs like First Night, Citrus and Southtown Girls which show a different picture. Some things can never be the same when you grow up. High school is never high school again. As Finn sings in First Night, “We can’t get as high as we did on that first night.” What follows this line might be the closest thing to musical realization of growing up that I’ve ever heard. Everything always changes and we can try to postpone that, Lord knows I’ve tried, but we can’t stop it.

It’s fitting that the album closes with this line from Southtown Girls, “Southtown girls won’t blow you away, but you know they’ll stay.” What’s more important, loyalty and security or life-altering experiences? It’s almost like Finn is asking us, the boys and girls in America: who are you going to be? It’s up to us to make the decision.

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