The excellent liner notes to this deluxe tenth anniversary edition of The Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever (by Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood) puts this somewhat maligned album into the greater context of The Hold Steady’s history. In short, debut The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me (2004) introduced us to a “scrappy and super-literate band from Brooklyn”; Separation Sunday (2005) then brought on a “groundswell of critical acclaim and love”, with Boys and Girls in America (2006) and Stay Positive (2008) then delivering commercial breakthrough, with the Hold Steady as “the ultimate cerebral party band taking each night to the brink of oblivion and yet somehow always making it home in one piece”. Then there was Heaven is Whenever (2010), and as Hood says, The Hold Steady took a “perceived stumble and faced a small comeuppance.”
What was the problem with Heaven is Whenever, if indeed there was a problem? Stephen M. Deusner for Pitchfork said that “Finn sings in first person throughout the album, gesturing at character and point of view, but the perspective from which these songs are written is neither entirely convincing nor consistent”. Dave Simpson at the Guardian said the album replaced “anthemic, fist-pumping choruses with a more reflective, thoughtful sound”. Jon Dolan for Rolling Stone said that the album was more “musically compact” than Stay Positive, and Andrzej Lukowski for the BBC thought it was a “moderately leaner record” than its’ predecessor. Tom Perry at Drowned in Sound said that it was “a good album with some problems”, highlighting the lack of piano, and a step backward to old riffs.
So perhaps Patterson Hood hits the nail on the head when he referred to the band taking a “perceived” stumble as generally the reviews were good, just not without some reservations. Further, it seems possible that when thinking of the album the immediate response may be to think of “We Can Get Together”, from where the album title is lifted. This song is a thoughtful elegy to suicide victim Matthew Fletcher, from Oxford (British) band Heavenly. It’s a moving but somewhat slight piece of music, which could be perceived as lightweight when in reality it hides some heavy sentiment.
As the central song of the album, “We Can Get Together” puts the listener in an uncomfortable position: as music fans we are likely to associate with the concern for music mythology, and the references to Hüsker Dü, Meatlof, and Utopia, but we are challenged in our place of refuge – this is about more than music, it’s about the death of a real person: “He wasn’t just the drummer, he was someone’s little brother/I still spin that single, but it don’t sound that simple anymore”. Finn has said that it was hard to imagine that someone in Heavenly had been struggling mentally or emotionally, when the music was so blissful; “We Can Get Together” reflects this difficulty, as well as “trying to capture in words the fleeting euphoria some songs can offer us”. The song is both an appreciation of being a music fan and the intimacy this can bring – “heaven is whenever we can get together/sit down on your floor and listen to your records”, as well as a tough reminder that there is more to life than music, bands and rock culture. This is a difficult, adult message to convey compared to the killer hook of the predecessor album – “we gotta stay positive”. It would be a mistake to say Finn’s lyrics are always upbeat, and they are certainly often complex, but Heaven is Whenever contains more of a sense of ambiguity than earlier albums.
In the same Guardian review mentioned, Simpson refers to Heaven is Whenever being “transitional”, and again this is an insightful comment. As Hood points out in the liner notes, keyboard player and full-time character Franz Nicolay had left the band to pursue solo projects, and “one of America’s hardest partying bands” (in the context of The Hold Steady, we can agree that “party” is a verb) were growing up; the characters “were growing up too and if youth is easy to romanticize, the next steps are often considered way less romantic.”
This may have been the case, but there are still many Hold Steady licks, riffs and kicks which should be familiar to followers of the band; “The Weekenders” re-visited “that whole weird thing with the horses” from “Chips Ahoy!” on Boys and Girls in America; kids and bars and faith and waitresses and Saint Theresa (wearing “see-thru”) loom large; there are the insider games of “The Smidge” and the car antics of singalong “Hurricane J”. Craig Finn, lyricist and Hold Steady frontman, provides continuity from one album to the next with crafty references to previous albums and characters. His witty, wordy and memorable lyrics, wonder whether heaven is hypothetical, and create their own universe. He often seems to step in as a kindly brother or uncle, offering some romantic advice on “Soft in the Center”, and empathising with the sinners on “Our Whole Lives”.
Hood comments that this time around “the characters weren’t specifically named, the disillusionment seemed somehow more inward and personal. Everything was a little more dense and sometimes a little harder to decipher.” This is particularly the case on the purposefully claustrophobic “Barely Breathing”, where street fighting and crowd violence hang heavy, and the “wonderful” struggle of “A Slight Discomfort”, with its’ extended murky close. The frenetic “Rock Problems” demonstrates the excitement of the high life a little too well, but does obliquely make the good point that sympathy may be short as a result.
“Dense” is a fitting description for Heaven is Whenever, but this is only in comparison to earlier work that was both lyrically and sonically more free-wheeling; here, Finn’s songs are more compact, and there is more focus on guitar. August Brown of the L.A. Times thought that the band “definitely misses its Snidely Whiplash-evoking keyboardist Franz Nicolay”; however, the reality was there were piano and keyboards (played by Dan Neustadt), they were just lower in the mix. Also, let’s not forget The Hold Steady has consistently featured some heavy guitar as a central feature of their work, thanks to guitar hero Tad Kubler. An additional whizz guitarist, Steve Selvidge, joined for touring of Heaven is Whenever, which Finn says was “one huge bright spot about this period”; Selvidge has been a permanent member of the band since then.
Finn has also said that this album was not a lot of fun to make and was recorded in fits and starts with medical issues and more self-awareness. However, it was “testament to the band’s willingness to show up and try to work through uncertainty” as they were “chasing something that was mostly undefined, and we kept making more and more music.” This deluxe edition of Heaven is Whenever has a second side of nine bonus tracks; some of these have been heard before, but taken as a whole this could be imagined as a lost Hold Steady album or the alternate Heaven is Whenever.
The extra material has similar lyrical concerns to the original album, but the arrangements are generally more straightforward, so it’s more accessible, but less ambitious in comparison. “Ascension Blues”, previously released as the B-side to “Hurricane J”, is a catchy and energetic consideration of celebrity with a snappy turn of phrase and driving guitar featuring a cast of Jimmie Connors, Calvin Klein, Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, so that “all the actors and the athletes/we’re gonna all be friends in heaven”. Despite this positive refrain, there is still an undertow of weariness with the narrator “trying to say something that seemed kinda interesting/still trying to figure out if she felt anything”.
These extra tracks also draw out a more distinct narrative of fear. In “Touchless” (previously released as an iTunes exclusive, and with a guitar line something like an Oasis classic), Finn sings that he wishes he could be untouchable to avoid being scratched, surrounded, attacked, not knowing “if you’re a friend or a freak”. “Separate Vacations”, a track previously heard in concert, is concerned with being physically stifled or suffocated as well as being conned, and that “your friends think you settled, you’re scared that they’re right”. The anxiety continues for “Criminal Fingers (previously released on 7” vinyl for Record Store Day in 2013, backed with “The Bear & the Maiden Fair”). Ominously drenched in reverb and distortion, this track excels in the sinister, with a vexing “I said – you said – they said” narrative. “At Least Not Tonight” veers towards being a Hold Steady anthem, with a heavy metal sensibility of “lambs to the slaughter”.
If there was criticism by some that there was a deficiency of keyboards on Heaven is Whenever, these extra tracks will not soothe their disquiet save for piano-driven “Beer On The Bedstand”; this track may have been inspired by Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita”, and is a tale of longing with its’ geographical wish that Memphis and Minneapolis weren’t so far apart. Otherwise, these tracks are even more guitar-heavy and with a raw sound; its possible less production time was spent on them or that this was purposeful. “Going On A Hike” is distinctive due to its’ tough riff; “Wonderful Struggle”, a sister song to “A Slight Discomfort” with a shared focus on struggle, has some fierce playing and a catchy chorus; the variations on the alternate “We Can Get Together” with a more dominant guitar solo, make it a stronger version.
This deluxe reissue is a convincing case for the defence by putting the original album in a wider context. Through the exclusion of some simpler, more obvious and commercial songs, The Hold Steady chose difficulty and ambiguity to make the point that life as an adult was not always a full throttle joyride. Finn says that at the time of writing the album, he was thinking a lot about the relationship between struggle and reward, and Heaven is Whenever has plenty of both. It was also a signal for fans to dig in for a longer-term experience, with the “density” and anxiety hinting at the angst to come four years later on Teeth Dreams. From slight discomfort to American sadness, you have to deal with your problems sooner or later.
Note 1: There are six further tracks that are part of the digital release, but are not included on the vinyl set: five tracks from the Avatar Sessions, “Hurricane J”, “Our Whole Lives”, “Separate Vacations”, “Going on a Hike”, and “We Can Get Together” as well as a demo of “Beer on the Bedstand”. Standouts are a ramped-up “Going on a Hike” and the extended grandeur of “We Can Get Together”.
Note 2: There is also a separate edition issued by Bandbox which includes a “Hurricane J”/”Our Whole Lives (Avatar Sessions)” 7-inch single, and a Hold Steady ‘zine.
Release Date: 27/11/20