One of The Hold Steady’s most loved songs has a character who can tell which horse is “gonna finish in first” (in the song, “Chips Ahoy”, it was “the fifth horse in the sixth race”); a similar special ability with numbers means we’re able to tell you that Open Door Policy is The Hold Steady’s eighth studio album. Bruce Springsteen’s eighth was Tunnel of Love; Wilco’s was The Whole Love, Nik Kershaw’s was Ei8ht, The Replacements did not make it past seven.
More stats and facts: The Hold Steady’s last album, 2019’s Thrashing Thru The Passion, collected five songs released digitally when no album was in sight, and five new tracks. This time around, according to frontman and lyricist Craig Finn, the band purposefully aimed for an album. Recorded at The Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, NY with producer Josh Kaufman and engineer D. James Goodwin, Open Door Policy marks the second LP by The Hold Steady to feature the band’s current six-piece line-up.
The album opens in an understated manner. “The Feelers” starts with an early morning meet-up “at the mansion on the mountain”. Bottles and models are mentioned – perhaps surprisingly, not a bottle of beer and a supermodel, but a specific British clipper ship. Beginning the album in this way is not so much wilfully uncommercial as demonstrating some assurance; the song itself points towards some of Finn’s solo work, and perhaps serves to transition between these different worlds.
Fans of The Hold Steady at full pelt and full volume however need not fear, because there are plenty of raucous moments on the album. These come most often when rock and roll looms up as a subject; The Hold Steady understand the allure of rock culture and its hedonistic undertow; the characters in “Hanover Camera” only make it backstage to hang with the band once they start “mixing it with sodium bicarbonate”. “Spices” revisits some fast and jaded characters moving at speed with technology, and makes some crafty inside references to previous songs and characters; there is also some insistence to stay until the end of a show, to hear a certain song. “Me & Magdalena” is noisy and chaotic as the characters attempt to cope with ever-changing tastes, and “The Prior Procedure” rings out with its singular piano notes and confessional fast-talking. “Heavy Covenant” is a slow build into grandeur, as we figure out the character is (unsurprisingly) more interested in rock and roll than selling software to offices to increase their efficiency.
Although there’s still much of the energetic spirit that The Hold Steady are known for, the circumstances of the characters perhaps make the album less boisterous than earlier work, with mental health being a focus. The verses in “Lanyards” are melancholic with disappointment, campervans behind warehouses, and ”seeing stars but not making it into a movie”; we’ve moved from gigs to hospitals, but still “everybody’s trying to get the right kind of wristband”. The doctor only wants to “help me make better decisions”, but this is clearly going to be a difficult road for the patient.
The album was written and almost entirely recorded before the Covid-19 pandemic began, but the songs are prescient with this concern for health as well as connection through technology. Anti-psychosis meds are being taken in “Unpleasant Breakfast”. “Family Farm” quickly escalates to a medically urgent level; the nurses’ phone buzzes like a hornet, hands shake, drums thump, and the energetic backing vocals and brass evoke what seems like an intense health crisis. In “The Prior Procedure” (where the all inclusive open door policy of the album title is instituted) someone is “scratching on the itch…since the prior procedure”.
Open Door Policy sounds like a collection of “deep cuts” – the album may require a few listens before it sinks in. Finn says Open Door Policy “feels like our most musically expansive record”, and it’s certainly a musically sophisticated album with interesting melodies and great musicianship by the band. The lyrics remain a highlight, but importantly they are set in an imaginative musical environment. Kubler’s and Selvidge’s guitar riffs are gritty but not over-cooked, and Nicolay’s keyboards add an extra dimension – he evokes an extra-terrestrial encounter in “The Feelers” to compliment Finn’s reference to a Blacklight poster. The ‘70s keys and bass (the latter by Galen Polivka) on “Hannover Camera” take the band into a delightful Steely Dan groove, and there’s something like an owl hoot at the start of “Heavy Covenant”.
It must have been said before that Finn’s lyrics are similar to literary short stories due to the level of fine detail. Memorable moments come in and out of focus at pace. In “Riptown” the narrator describes “another Sunday night locked in the bathroom/obsessing over minor abrasions”. In “Hanover Camera”, “the lighting made her look like she was a hostage”, and in “Spices”, “all the bartenders are strangling their shakers” and “all the majorettes have the sun in their eyes”.
This is also an ambitious album with at least one significant risk; “Unpleasant Breakfast” may divide fans due to the repetitive siren sound; it’s a bold experiment which may be fun in concert, but may seem like a novelty longer term. Overall however, the full band line-up, with two guitar players, keyboards and brass continues to sound great. By being confident in their ability to deliver a great album, The Hold Steady have done just that: Open Door Policy is an engaging and interesting record, and is up there with some of their best work.
Note: there’s a bonus “digital” track, “Parade Days”, not on the CD or vinyl. Despite its Springsteen-like reference to “the Queen of the Lake”, it’s a relatively subdued extra, with a warm, fading organ outro.
Label: Positive Jams
Release Date: 19 FEB 21