Songwriter creates beauty from ugliness

by Amy Kingsley

I’m not the first to pronounce the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn some kind of genius. Adjectives like “brilliant,” “astute” and “literate” have dogged the guy since his band’s first release Almost Killed Me in 2004.

The next year’s Separation Sunday cemented Finn’s reputation for acrobatic wordplay and intellectual heavy-hitting (the track “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” sent me to the dictionary with the lines “we mix our own mythologies. We push them out through PA systems. We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen.”)

But the music wasn’t all or even mostly about its encyclopedic literary and musical references; Finn’s lyrics, which on the first two albums were barked more often than sung, earned him distinction as America’s back-alley poet laureate. He provided an insider perspective on addiction, codependence and the underground rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

With their third album, Boys and Girls in America, the Hold Steady has backed away from Finn’s Catholic obscurantism and his band’s tendency to riff rather than rock, and emerged with an album with wider appeal, but still geared toward the rock fan who – like the 33-year-old Finn – has lived through some shit.

Finn’s characters belong to two camps: hedonistic youth and stoner burnouts. Sometimes, in songs that read like serialized stories, they pass from the former group to the latter with the burnouts always seeming a bit closer to the singer’s heart. They reserve faith for religious salvation; they’re too destroyed by rock ‘n’ roll and poetry to believe that either offers deliverance. When Finn’s characters lament the lives they lead, they’re usually saddest when they can’t get as high as they used to.

Finding inspiration in music can become more difficult as we get older. What the Hold Steady offers its fans is membership in a sort of cult of disbelievers. Finn’s lyrics describe the sad fate of those who believe too strongly in the transformative power of art. Behind his pronouncements, the band is selling it with the upbeat vamp of a gospel choir, almost like they haven’t gotten the message.

Finn started a Minneapolis bar band from his Brooklyn apartment. He writes small stories about lowlifes who’ve tempted fate dozens of times too many. And somehow he’s become the critically acclaimed voice of an aging post-grunge generation. His band may be indebted to Minneapolis bands like the Replacements and Husker Dü, but they rock in a way that’s universally admirable.

Finn’s characters party, hook-up and start bands almost out of habit. When it’s stripped of poetry, their situation is a treadmill almost as mindless as any corporate gig. His characters’ focus on clinging to youth is as avaricious as their Wall Street compatriot’s eye for stockpiling wealth. Finn and his band somehow turn all that sadness and futility into something exciting and meaningful, which makes it easy to forget about how desperate his characters really are.

The trick with Finn, who may share more with Jack Kerouac than an affinity for Sal Paradise, is that he can find and create beauty out of what is a messy and often ugly scene. That beauty is what the fans/artists/musicians fix on, like a holy grail buried beneath the rubble of burn-outs and broken hearts.

Finn doesn’t do it alone. His solid backing band creates radio-friendly, E Street-style anthems for the quest, complete with dependable, fist-pumping crescendos. Never has dissolution been so easy to sing along with. In “You Can Make Him Like You,” the whole package comes together: the addiction, loneliness and catchy-as-hell chorus. And it’s the final three lines of that song which capture one of Finn’s saddest observations:

They say you don’t have a problem until you start to do it alone.

They say you don’t have a problem until you start bringing it home.

They say you don’t have a problem until you start sleeping alone.

It’s drugs, drinking and fear of being alone all wrapped up into one beautiful package. And it’s all about using something or someone. In Finn’s world, you don’t have to go to the right kind of schools if your boyfriend goes to the right kind of schools. You can wear his old sweatshirt, you can cover yourself like a bruise. The right boyfriend is as much a portal to alternate reality as a well-mixed handful of pills.

It’s ugly, but unbelievably catchy. And when he stands in front of a crowd, pushing up his glasses every few seconds, barely playing his guitar and pointing like a frantic evangelical, Finn sure seems like a believer. So we’ll sing along and let the music deliver us where it will.

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