Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Blessed are those who found The Hold Steady in 2005, just after the release of its glorious second album, Separation Sunday.
Discovering the band at this righteous and revelatory moment was like being an early Christian, only better, since it likely led to nights of heavy beer drinking, and there was no danger of being fed to the lions.
It was an introduction to a world of strange characters whose allegorical adventures could change your life, and listening to Separation Sunday without any background knowledge or preconceived notions was a thrilling precursor to evangelism. This was a band you felt compelled to tell people about.
At least it was for a certain type of rock fan. Even before Separation Sunday—a rambling concept record about one girl’s druggy, oversexed search for god and self—early converts had pegged The Hold Steady as a “meta bar band.” These were brainy Minneapolis indie vets living in Brooklyn and making brawny Springsteen-esque rock for the “clever people” (mostly dudes) frontman (not yet singer) Craig Finn sometimes railed against in his lyrics.
Like its predecessor, 2004’s excellent Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday teems with rock-nerd in-jokes, pop-culture references, and biblical allusions. Nowadays, The Hold Steady is a much more broadly appealing rock band; on Separation Sunday, Finn created what could be called footnote-core. Each phrase in every line of every song deserves its own explanatory hyperlink, and full appreciation of this album hinges on one’s knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, the lyrics of Kate Bush and Bob Marley, the substance-abuse struggles of former sitcom star Mackenzie Phillips, and the Minneapolis punk collective Profane Existence.
It also helps to know some geography and drug terminology. Separation Sunday follows lead character Hallelujah, or Holly, as she careens across America, snorting this, smoking that, and leaving a trail of wreckage that extends through Denver, Chicago, the Twin Cities, and the truly terrifying party cesspool of Ybor City, Florida, en route to redemption. The story ends in church, with Holly stumbling out of a confession booth and telling the congregation “How A Resurrection Really Feels.”
“When I wrote Separation Sunday, I had stuff taped up all over my walls, drawing arrows, trying to envision the whole thing,” Finn told Pitchfork in 2006.
But for all his planning, the plot has a vagueness that suits these characters. For much of the record—indeed, for all of it, until the very end—Holly hardly seems like the type who wakes up most mornings remembering where she spent the night before. The dramatic trajectory is less an arc than it is a Krazy Straw—a Krazy Straw jammed into a can of premixed black and tan and guzzled by one of the cross-wielding Jesus freaks Finn barks about on “Banging Camp,” in which a subculture of kids whose love of Christ and nitrous has led them to pitch tents along the Mississippi River.
The combination of intense specificity (names of streets, cities, bands, etc.) and completely unreliable narration is what makes Separation Sunday such an original record, even though it was an extension of ideas Finn had been exploring for years.
Prior to landing in New York City, he and guitarist Tad Kubler played in the Minneapolis outfit Lifter Puller, a slightly more abrasive version of the band that would make them famous. Listening to either group without having read any interviews or heard any critical hype—something that was still possible circa Separation Sunday—one might figure Finn for a recovering addict or former “Banging Camp” counselor. In fact, he’s a well-adjusted Catholic from a good family who says he still attends church.
As a teenager, Finn fell hard for punk, but he must have been the most thoughtful kid at the hardcore matinee, that rare type of fan who could lose himself in the brutish unity of “the scene”—two words he comes back to again and again—and yet remain mindful of the ridiculousness of it all. He’s an observer with an incredible ability to empathize with people who lack his intelligence and restraint—every character in The Hold Steady universe, in other words.
“A lot of it comes from when I was a teenager,” Finn told the Memphis Flyer, describing the inspiration behind his lyrics. “When I was part of the hardcore scene—meeting all kinds of knuckleheads and doing stupid things. There’s a certain amount of trust at that age; you get yourself in trouble.”
For all the darkness—the bits about prostitution, addiction, and overdosing—the songs on Separation Sunday have a lightness linked to the classic rock Finn heard on the radio while riding around in cars like any Midwestern kid. He’s a romantic, like his hero Paul Westerberg, and those Campbell’s Chunky Beef Stew riffs aren’t meant to be ironic. As Kubler told Magnet in 2006, they weren’t even a response to the disco-punk then dominating his adopted hometown.
“I would love to say that it was an intentional reaction to what was going on in New York at the time,” Kubler said. “But the fact of the matter is, it’s the music I grew up on. Let’s face it, we’re not reinventing the wheel.”
On subsequent Hold Steady albums, such as the breakthrough follow-up, Boys And Girls In America, those classic-rock signifiers became more pronounced, and the group lost some of what had made it so special. Finn has continued to tell stories about sketchy kids doing drugs and trying to find heaven wherever they can, but he’s never done so as ambitiously or successfully—or with as much humor—as he did on Separation Sunday. By using composite characters to hash out unbelievable narratives rooted in absolute truths, he was doing what secular scholars insist the compilers of the bible were doing and creating his own gospel.
“Redemption, salvation, forgiveness—those are beautiful, profound things you can always come back to,” Finn told The Florida Times-Union in 2006.
The same is true of life-altering rock ’n’ roll albums, and many years from now, when Finn meets Saint Peter and tries to sweet-talk his way through the Pearly Gates, he can say he made at least one. Hopefully, God caught all the references.