Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On Open Door Policy, The Hold Steady evolve from bar hounds into lounge lizards

The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady
Photo: Adam Parshall

Early on in the 2020 sort-of documentary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, an old man coins a rallying cry for generations of fuck-ups. “I pride myself on not actually becoming an alcoholic until I was already a failure,” he says to his audience of fellow day drinkers, each of them at an old haunt on its last day of business to drown their sorrows and watch the lights go out. There’s a hard truth in those words—if you’re going to lose, lose on your own terms. If you’re going to wear the scarlet F of failure, turn it into a badge of honor.

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No band is more adept at making a loss sound like a win than The Hold Steady. Their songs are full of self-aware losers and the winners who get off on slumming with them. Whether it’s being rolled into the ER while drinking gin from a jam jar or getting grilled by Tennessee cops, The Hold Steady can soundtrack even the most dead-end scenarios with a triumphant energy. The band clearly took Steely Dan to heart when Donald Fagen sang “I want a name when I lose”—Hold Steady songs double as roll-calls for the class of libertines and lost causes that populate their albums.

Open Door Policy is the band’s eighth album—the first one they’ve written and recorded from front to back as a six-piece (with the addition of guitarist Steve Selvidge and the return of founding keyboardist Franz Nicolay). The Hold Steady occupy a strange position in 2021: They began their career as underdogs, drawing heavily from (at the time) unfashionable influences like Thin Lizzy, Bruce Springsteen, and ’70s album rock. You could even detect a faint hint of Jim Steinman on those keys. Mixing together that boisterous bar rock with perennial underground favorites like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, The Hold Steady created a potent strain of genuine Dude Rock: drunk dorks with barbed guitar riffs who weren’t afraid to quote Kerouac and throw in so many “whoah-oh-oh” chants in their songs that even Danzig would think they need to take it down a notch.

Tastes and fortunes change, and now The Boss and Fleetwood Mac—and even Steely Dan—are hip again. And The Hold Steady, once cult favorites, are now a big enough band that they could appear as themselves in an episode of Billions and have it be entirely believable that a hedge fund would pay to have them play at its party. So what do you do, when you’ve gone from being an eternal loser to being counted in the company of winners? What happens when you’ve spent your creative life chronicling the misfortunes of people pissing their lives away in ratty bars and sketchy neighborhoods, and now those places have been so gentrified that the light beers are as expensive as cocktails, and they’ve traded in their laminated, beer-stained karaoke songbooks for phone apps? Open Door Policy offers a surprising answer: If you can’t be a bar band anymore, play as a lounge act.

Album opener “The Feelers” drops us right into this new slow and steady pace. Singer-songwriter Craig Finn sings about a maestro with glitter on his face and blacklight posters on the wall, lyrical nods to the musical vibes they’re playing out: spacey headphone rock of the Pink Floyd vintage, cut with a bit of Bowie balladeering. Instead of building up tension to explode in a fist-pumping chorus, “The Feelers” floats and meanders. It’s surprising how good The Hold Steady sound in this mode—not rushing headlong toward the feels, but soaking in the atmosphere. The follow-up song, “Spices,” actually makes the vibe menacing for a change, with its serpentine guitar licks and Finn’s lyrics about bartenders strangling their shakers as hidden substances are passed around the bar. By the time the horn-backed chorus kicks in, not even the band shouting a character’s bar order of “vanilla vodka and Diet Dr. Pepper” with their typical cathartic verve can break the song’s tension. Some nights are too dark to let any light in.

Written and recorded in 2019, Open Door Policy’s songs—like a lot of art these days—nevertheless have an eerie resonance with the times. An obsession with mental health and doctors is a running thread throughout the album. “The doctor says he only wants to help me make better decisions,” Finn sings on “Lanyards,” the same song where he compares club wristbands to the ones you wear in the ER (“everybody needs to see the right color wristband”). The characters in this song talk about being on or off anti-psychosis meds, and grappling with feelings of loneliness and displacement—both psychological and geographic. The specter of gentrification, and the corrosive influence of wealth, is another thematic runner on Open Door Policy, its songs full of big-timers picking up bar tabs at penthouse parties while hangers-on kiss their asses—“A new billionaire in an underdog shirt,” Finn sings. Maybe he’s wearing a Hold Steady shirt.

When the band leans most heavily on its signature style, in songs like “Family Farm,” Open Door Policy starts to feel like a story you’ve heard a bar regular tell a hundred times before: The familiarity is comforting, but after a few minutes the nostalgic glow fades, and you start to wish the guy would come up with new material. But when they stretch themselves to try something new, they sound engaged and alive in a manner akin to 2008’s Stay Positive. The shambling, folksy rhythms and bright horns on “Unpleasant Breakfast,” whose backing chorus of “wooooo”s sounds like giddy ambulance sirens, would sound right at home next to the Counting Crows’ “Hanginaround” on a playlist. “Hanover Camera” is a slinky slice of Fleetwood Mac-inspired pop that leans more on Christine McVie’s wistfulness and eroticism than Buckingham-ian spite. And album highlight “Me & Magdalena” happily marries the old and new Hold Steady, fusing an arena rock John Bonham drum stomp to a smoky lounge groove—Finn’s woman narrator ranting about “grackles at the snack bar waging war for popcorn and potato chips” and lamenting about “wildly inconsistent” boys (“first they’re into Kiss/now they’re into crust”).

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While the band’s smoothness may mirror the gentrification of the dive bars it once canonized, its empathy and affection for the dirtbags yearning for transcendence remains as strong as ever. “Back in my hometown there’s nothing but the hum of the locusts / and the rest of my life to get used to being washed out of show biz,” Finn sings. The Hold Steady understands that desire to be named when you’re down and out, to insist that you still control your destiny even when it doesn’t go your way. Much like the Christian imagery that pervades the work, the possibility of resurrection and salvation is always there in Hold Steady’s music. It’s there in every whoah-oh-whoah, and every promise to rise anew—even if it’s just to go get hammered all over again.