There’s a point about halfway through “Oaks”—the “holy shit, it’s nine minutes long” closing song of The Hold Steady’s sixth album, Teeth Dreams—where everything drops out except for the guitar and vocals. Space opens up. Echoes swirl. Craig Finn sings about “mountains all covered in oaks.” Yes, sings. The frontman who’s made a career out of monotone poetry recited over catchy rock hooks has somehow reversed his band’s polarity. He, not his band, carries the melody. As the instruments inch back in like sheepish pets, a guitar solo straight out of Crazy Horse or Lynyrd Skynyrd pulls the rug out from under them all. The song hits free fall. The sun sets. Fade to black.
The Hold Steady has always trafficked in melodramatic, capital-R rock gestures, but at the same time it always held back. Finn’s refusal to conform to pop-singer expectations, along with the rollicking keyboard of Franz Nicolay, seemed to admit that the zone between indie rock and arena rock was a no-band’s land. Over the past few years, that reality has changed—and it’s to The Hold Steady’s credit that Teeth Dreams reflects it. Nicolay has been gone for years now, but Teeth Dreams is not only the group’s first album written without either his presence or palpable absence, it’s the first with second guitarist Steve Selvidge—formerly of country- and roots-rock powerhouse Lucero—as a full participant. It’s a new band for a new world, and Teeth Dreams might as well be a debut.
Only it’s full of scars and shadows of the past. If there’s one thing The Hold Steady holds dear, it’s the way history twists, taints, and haunts us. “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” comes on like vintage Finn, all staccato chants and coded accusations about the old punk days and the bruises they’ve left. More than ever, coming of age in a circle pit isn’t a requisite for getting it; “For me it was mostly the music,” he damn-near croons over the tangled jangle of Selvidge and founding guitarist Tad Kubler. The latter seems liberated, not hemmed in, by the addition of a fulltime six-string partner, especially one as handy at classic, FM-era songcraft as Selvidge. Tradition—or at least traditionalism—was once held at arm’s length by The Hold Steady. But there’s not only a hint of Green Mind-era Dinosaur Jr. to songs like “Spinners,” there’s a more full-throated fulfillment of the Bruce Springsteen/Thin Lizzy flirtation of the band’s prior peak.
Above it all—on the balladic “The Ambassador,” the cock-rocking “Big Cig,” and the Selvidge-riffed “Runner’s High,” whose twangy, ringing intro sounds like The Eagles’ “Already Gone” and won’t stoop to acknowledge a need to apologize for it—Finn is on fire. But it’s a simmering inferno. “Almost Everything” is Teeth Dream’s acoustic breather, and he’s never sounded so delicate or vulnerable. “I can hear you breathe / I can feel almost everything,” he sings with the softest rasp, doing his best to return the favor. There’s a reliance on grunt-work over wordplay, a struggle to do more on his end to lend his lyrics grace, and to coast less on turns of phrase, as complicated and clever as he can make them. Finn has slowed what rolls off his tongue, just as The Hold Steady as a whole has at last jelled into a rock band—nothing more, nothing less, and nothing held back.