American Sadness

Insistent, immediate, even shrill seem like the best ways to describe The Hold Steady. Ten years in, they have a literary cache in the poems of Michael Robbins, which are likewise insistent, immediate, and even shrill. But bite into their sixth album, Teeth Dreams — at least by the fourth track, “The Ambassador” — and you’re in the subconscious. Frontman Craig Finn is downright melodic, for Craig Finn, on this song. Ten years ago, he practically bleated the first installment of its story, “Sweet Payne”, over harsh guitars.

Swelling guitars are back, and so is Gideon. Characters and stories arc across this discography. Teeth Dreams evokes the band’s more densely lyrical albums but strikes a balance between storytelling and songcraft. Different interpretive keys are scattered in the album. There is the castration anxiety of characters whose lives are falling apart amid drugs, prostitution, rock shows and dingy hotel rooms. “Big Cig” puts a lightheartedly obvious touch on Freud.

At rock bottom, “American sadness” is Finn’s persistent theme. He locates it “between the skin and the blood”, between everyday lives of down-and-out Americans and their Christ-haunted dreamscape. “The Ambassadors” again makes an ironic reference to the guilt and hypocrisy of St. Peter:

“Well your friend from the tire shop / He keeps talking ’bout some rocks / Like he wants something hard to hit his head on / You said he’s a mystic / Well I know he’s not Catholic / He’s got a cross all upside-down carved in his arm.”

Finn sympathetically explores the lives of his characters: drifters, drug addicts, pimps, and prostitutes. It seems to me often that this is the only plausible Christian rock.

Teeth Dreams came out today.

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