The Hold Steady: Almost Killed Me

July 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Also, I think if people would listen to The Hold Steady’s lyrics, although there tends to be a lot of talk of drugs and sex and things like that, it tends not to be a glorification. I tend to think we present the downside. I think the people who are really paying attention realize that…I’ve known people who have had drug and alcohol problems and I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s something to be glorified. It’s just a story I’m telling.-Craig Finn (http://www.aversion.com/bands/interviews.cfm?interview=232)

“It’s just a story that I’m telling,” says Finn and earlier in the interview he says, “I really want it to be honest.” And honest they are, for as much as they revel in the apparent glories of alcohol or drug induced stupor, there is always a firm awareness of their consequences. Sometimes it might only be one or two lines in a song, or even on the whole album, so as Finn says, close attention is needed to notice the advice he is imparting. While this advice is more obvious on later releases Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever, The Hold Steady’s inaugural album Almost Killed Me tells its stories with this same mentality.

Almost Killed Me doesn’t quite have as much religious imagery as the following albums, but it does contain plenty of witty one-liners hidden behind the dirty, haphazard music. The album opener, Positive Jam, seems to be the band’s mission statement as Finn recounts the decades of the 1900s and then says, “We’ve got to start it with a positive jam.” It’s a new century and a new generation. These songs seem to be tales of us, the kids, teenagers, twenty-somethings who are growing up in this new century.

There are songs like The Swish, Knuckles and Hostile, Mass. which triumphantly speak of run-ins with the police and late night parties replete with obscure highs and plenty of alcohol. These are the kids looking for something to do to jolt them out of their “boring” lives, searching for thrills in any way they can obtain them. A constant in these stories is the occasional wry observation that Finn always seems to make which, if you catch it, forces a moment of reflection. In Knuckles as Finn plays the part of a witty drug dealer he tosses out this line in the final verse, “It’s hard to stay in bed when half your friends are dead.” Or for instance in Hostile, Mass. he says this, “In the park drinking dark Bacardi, thinking things are funny when they really aren’t that funny…the color of their eyes match the color of our blood.” Consequences, to be certain.

Barfruit Blues is one of those songs that Finn specializes in, seemingly a story of a bar filled with all kinds of fun shenanigans, until we arrive later on in the song. Barfruit Blues begins talking about Holly (see Separation Sunday) and the party and then Finn adds this about her, “Holly can’t speak. She doesn’t feel that sweet, about the places she sometimes has to go to get some sleep.” Also, take note of the Springsteen reference (from Born to Run) in the song’s finale, “Baby, we were born to choose… we were born to bruise.” Is the time for running over or is there nowhere to run to? In this new century, have we realized that there is nowhere that we can run to get away from ourselves?

The band Titus Andronicus takes this a step further in their song A More Perfect Union on their newest album Monitor. Paying homage to Springsteen and possibly The Hold Steady lead singer Patrick Stickles sings this, “Because baby, tramps like us, we were born to die.” Is this the legitimate end of the postmodern worldview?  With no nowhere left to run, nothing to choose from and no one, not even ourselves, left to bruise do we just exist to die? I think Finn’s answer is slightly more optimistic, because if he thought this I doubt he would be talking about the consequences of actions. And he definitely wouldn’t have written Separation Sunday.

So why do we exist, according to Finn? That’s not really an answer I know, but I do know that while there several of The Hold Steady’s songs point to having fun and living it up, this is never seen as the sole purpose of living. There is always the understanding that eventually we have to grow up and take responsibility for our lives and for others who may depend on us. We exist to be in community with others, Finn seems to be saying. Take Sweet Payne for instance as the guitars, bass and drums build up to a euphoric declaration of, “I always dream about a unified scene.” There is the guitar squealing in the background, with Finn belting out and it’s one of the most exuberant pieces of music on the album. A unified scene, a place where kids don’t get into fights about stupid things, where they’ve learned to grow up.

There is meaning for us–children of this generation, boys and girls in America–in community, whether that be in an unified scene, in church (Separation Sunday), or with friends. There is also meaning in growing up and taking responsibility for our actions, like Holly eventually does in the Separation Sunday story or as Finn talks about in Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever. Sometimes it’s hard to find this meaning and often we would rather take the easy way of false community through alcohol or sex, but as The Hold Steady often shows, this eventually leads to unfortunate consequences. But there is always hope and there is always grace.


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