Thrashing Thru the Passion is The Hold Steady’s seventh studio album. It collects five songs released digitally since 2017 and five new tracks (a separate collection, Four on Ten, gathers the remaining digitally released tracks on vinyl for Record Store Black Friday 2019).
The album benefits from an “expanded” band of six musicians (Craig Finn, Tad Kubler, Galen Polivka, Bobby Drake, Franz Nicolay and Steve Selvidge) following the return of multi-instrumentalist Nicolay, plus a horn section; there is a big, wide sound as a result, and it gives the group a chance to stretch out with guitar heroics from Kubler and Selvidge (there’s a great twin guitar line on “Blackout Sam”), some inventive drumming by Drake and added character due to Nicolay’s keyboards.
The lyrics are, as always, exceptional, with Finn’s snappy lines a highpoint of The Hold Steady experience. Song lyrics are different to poetry, but these get close to being able to stand freely; take the wise-cracking rhythmic opening to “Epaulets”:
She texts from the exit, says she’s on her way over
In an ocelot coat with the epaulet shoulders
It’s sweet ’cause I’m a sucker for the dictator chic
And I’m good with the irregular heartbeats
So now she’s hanging with me
More often than not because of the direct lyrics and compelling music, the listener is placed in the centre of the action, and the characters charm us to listen to their stories. The dude in “Denver Haircut” admits he’s in going through a “transitional time”, and with “the stench of death in the credits”, seems to be weighing up the possible returns coming to the conclusion that: “it doesn’t have to be pure, it doesn’t have to be perfect/just sort of has to be worth it”.
There are some familiar signposts on Thrashing Thru the Passion creating a sense of continuity from previous albums; references to cinema and pop culture abound (the frenetic “Star 18” namechecks Mick Jagger, Hemingway, Donna Summer. Peter Tosh), but overall there is a sense of increased sophistication; the drugs are not street but medicinal (the princess of “Confusion in the Marketplace” comes to breakfast looking puffy from Prednisone) and the party people are less than alluring in “Entitlement Crew”.
Although The Hold Steady is a band with its’ own inside culture (their fans fare known as “the Unified Scene”), they are still capable of poking fun at the rock and roll flashing of laminates in “Blackout Sam” and the special handshakes with the doorman in “T-Shirt Tux”. Any disparagement is fleeting though; The Hold Steady are true rock and roll believers, “reaching for the secrets in the static on the stereo” on “Confusion in the Marketplace, and as listeners we’re directly asked to drop any pretend resistance – we’re spotted mouthing the words to a song in “Entitlement Crew”, so there’s no point trying to feign coolness.
The universe of The Hold Steady tends to encompass a few dodgy chancers, and this continues here; in “Denver Haircut” “that chick took his wallet”, and there are some murky favours in “The Stove & the Toaster”, with the stash in the stove and the cash in the toaster. Nefarious acts are usually carried out with some comic élan, but less sympathy is provided to those who act with cynicism or opportunism (“You Did Good Kid”).
Overall the anthems are more subtle than on previous albums and the hooks less immediate, but there are still some great riffs and unexpected melodies which make this an interesting listen. As “Confusion in the Marketplace” suggests, sometimes the reward is in the search for meaning itself.
Label: Frenchkiss Records
Release Date: 16 AUG 2019