At some point in the past 15 years, The Hold Steady was the best rock band in America. It won the title by synthesizing the rawness and subject matter of punk rock with the shamelessly pleasurable riffing of classic rock, taken high as hell by the literary voice of frontman Craig Finn. It’s hard to say exactly when the band lost this status, because it didn’t suffer through a notable decline—at least not in quality (even if plenty of listeners prefer its first three records above the rest). After a breakneck first six years and a period of inactivity following 2014’s Teeth Dreams, it felt like maybe The Hold Steady—ever self-aware about the dynamics and optics of making rock ’n’ roll for a living—was abdicating its title. How long can anyone stay the greatest, anyway?
But The Hold Steady never formally left the scene, maybe because the demise-to-reunion progression has accelerated enough to skip breakups entirely. A little while after Teeth Dreams, the Brooklyn group brought back keyboardist Franz Nicolay (who had left during the making of 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever), retained new bonus guitarist Steve Selvidge, and booked a series of multi-night, sometimes anniversary-related shows in lieu of a grueling tour schedule. It then began releasing songs intermittently online, freed from the usual promotional cycles. But as distinctive as The Hold Steady’s classic-punk hybridization might be, Finn and company are traditionalists at heart, unlikely to let an album’s worth of songs sit around on streaming services.
Hence Thrashing Thru The Passion, the first new Hold Steady album in over five years and, in its casual and on-brand way, the band’s biggest stylistic departure yet. That’s not to say it represents a wholesale reimagining of the Hold Steady’s sound. (One of its major competitors in the category of “best recent American rock band,” Sleater-Kinney, is putting out a new record on the very same day, and one with significantly more sonic experimentation.) It’s more like a carefully negotiated reorganization, making sure there are enough guitar lines, keyboard melodies, singalong backing vocals, and Finn witticisms to bring each song to proper six-piece equilibrium.
Even with an expanded lineup, this new configuration is a looser and less-anthemic iteration of the band, reducing the fist-pumping and giving the songs more room to breathe. “Denver Haircut” kicks off the record with some mid-tempo storytelling about an encounter at an airport (a scene-setting detail later echoed in the “tequila takeoff, Tacate landing” of “Entitlement Crew”), an indication that the album’s characters will be a little less youthful than the scenesters of Separation Sunday or Boys And Girls In America. As usual, Finn’s lyrics put it best: “You’re kind of catching me at a transitional time.”
From this early moment, Thrashing feels liberated from some of the band’s usual album architecture. Beyond the lack of big mosh-pit revivals, it also avoids the lush ballads that typically arrive halfway through a Hold Steady record. The closest Thrashing gets is “Blackout Sam,” a sparer production than the likes of “First Night” or “The Ambassador,” with an unadorned group chant in place of borderline power-balladry. At the back of the record, “Confusion In The Marketplace” is the group’s punchiest, most concise closing track in, well, ever.
It’s a productive scaling-down—the sound of a great rock band getting back to work. The Hold Steady achieves its classic-punk alchemy by balancing the powerful rock ’n’ roll mythmaking of guitarist Tad Kubler’s riffs with the conversational myth-puncturing of Finn’s lyrics, and that balance threatens to topple over if the songs venture into more grandiose or self-referential territory. On Thrashing Thru The Passion, the guys seem rightfully skittish about becoming the kind of middle-aged band that writes lots of songs about being in a band and going on tour.
There are still lines that can be read as self-deprecating references: “Hold Steady at the Comfort Inn / Mick Jagger’s at the Mandarin,” Finn sings on “Star 18,” possibly following up the “Ask Her For Adderall” line about name-dropping the Stones. But a prickly crime story like “The Stove & The Toaster” is pretty far from even an ironic evocation of rock-star glamour, and multiple songs go further into workaday life by recalling the office-worker ennui of the Stay Positive bonus track “Two Handed Handshake,” right down to the album’s horn-heavy arrangements. “Traditional Village” marks the glorious return of wailing sax to the band’s repertoire, which in this particular combination with zinging piano flourishes brings an unexpected touch of Billy Joel to its E Street stylings. “Village” and the keyboard-heavy “Entitlement Crew” offer additional proof that classic Hold Steady songs don’t necessarily need blood, sweat, and/or crosses to quickly work their way into fans’ hearts.
For hardcore fans, the record’s second half, beginning with “Entitlement,” may present a strange listening experience. Those who have followed the band’s single releases over the past two years will essentially be hearing an all-new side A fused to a previously released side B. As such, despite the reaffirmation of The Hold Steady’s album bona fides, it’s hard to avoid hearing Thrashing as a dribs-and-drabs record; keep in mind that the “transitional time” line back in the opener is as much a warning as an explanation. Similarly, “Entitlement Crew” has a self-effacing mantra: “Thanks for listening, thanks for understanding.”
But remember when, circa All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 claimed that it was reapplying for the job of best band in the world? The Hold Steady of Thrashing Thru The Passion isn’t making any such grand statement. It’s just quietly filling out the application. And “Denver Haircut” features another potentially meta observation: “It doesn’t have to be pure. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just sort of has to be worth it.” No Finn-ish qualifiers needed here. It’s worth it.