On Boys And Girls In America, his third album as frontman for the meta-bar-band The Hold Steady, Craig Finn still obsesses over self-destructive teens who score drugs and screw around. Finn's critics could say—justifiably—that he's in a songwriting rut, but it's hard to complain when he comes up with lines like "She was a damn good dancer / But she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend," or "I got really high and then I came to in the chill-out tent / They gave me oranges and cigarettes." Finn is a smart-ass and a poseur, but he genuinely understands how it feels to want to get wasted, both as a way of fitting in with the crowd, and a way of forgetting that you can't.
On Boys And Girls' best song, "You Can Make Him Like You," Finn delivers the interior monologue of a woman who latches onto men who get her high. It's hard to know what's more achingly poignant: the desperation behind the title, or the detail in lines like "You don't have to go to the right kind of schools / Let your boyfriend come from the right kind of schools / You can wear his old sweatshirt / You can cover yourself like a bruise."
Of course, "You Can Make Him Like You" is, first and foremost, a vigorous and insanely catchy rock song, driven by a stinging guitar and rippling piano. Boys And Girls showcases The Hold Steady as a group, starting with Tab Kubler's layered riffing on the majestic album-opener "Stuck Between Stations," and continuing through the last song, "Southtown Girls," in which the whole band sings. Always muscular, The Hold Steady is now wiry to boot, capable of cabaret ballads like "First Night" as well as Thin-Lizzy-meets-Black-Flag anthems like "Massive Night." Both those songs are about moments that linger, "when every song was right," and the triumph of Boys And Girls is that it's full of the kind of songs that Finn's protagonists would crank up, relishing every power chord.