"It’s just these guys that I know, we go back pretty deep," Craig Finn sings into the chorus/payoff in "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You", the galvanizing kick-off to The Hold Steady’s sixth studio effort, Teeth Dreams, and that’s as fitting a band’s current mission statement as you can hope for in today’s rock & roll.
"These guys" are what remains of the infamous and legendary (in the Hold Steady milieu, anyway) Cityscape Skins crew, and that reference, in this song, on this album, might just be a perfect metaphor for what the Hold Steady’s been trying to accomplish for the whole of their last three albums: That they want to move past the seedy (but altogether fascinating) backstory of the massive bar-rock opera that is their first three albums: Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday, and Boys And Girls In America. (And sure, like the third Godfather film, B&GiA barely grasps a wispy thematic wire binding it to its 2 predecessors, but it pays dues to the same homeowners association.)
But, in music as in life, getting any distance from the grittier parts of your past, whether that distance is measured by a few drinks, a couple of months, or a thousand miles, can be tough. It’s a struggle for many different reasons, not the least of which is the expectations and wants and pressures from those who’ve been in your circle the longest.
Don’t forget where you came from, bro.
You’ve changed. After all we’ve been through together…
Add that weight (“…it’s just these guys that I know…”) to the nostalgic pull of a bunch of past home-action-movies you’re not so proud of but were still a lot of fucking fun and bam! You just related your whole life to what The Hold Steady goes through with each new release.
So how’d Teeth Dreams do with me, this long-term initiate, someone who’s been there the whole time?
They shut me up at first (I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You), and by the time Teeth Dreams was fading out (Oaks) I can enthusiastically shout that they’ve very nearly reinvented their wheel, and that it was a good, good thing.
The best examples of this evolution might be viewed through the ladies our narrator addresses/advises, from the Cityscape Skins era and Almost Killed Me’s “Barfruit Blues ” (responds to her “Good to see you back in a bar-band, baby”, with a “Great to see you’re still in the bars”) to today’s Teeth Dreams, and “Spinners” (“It’s a big city, there’s a lot of love… you’ve got to get back out there.”) and “Wait A While” (“Once they hear you’ve got a broken heart they’re gonna come around and try to make you smile. Little girl, you’re gonna rush right in, why don’t you just wait a while?”). Lots of drinks/months/miles between album #1 and #6, yes?
And sonically, while’s there not a jarring leap from 2010’s markedly layered and lush Heaven is Whenever, the addition of guitarist Steve Selvidge yields a subtle layer of… grandeur, I guess? Sure, Teeth Dreams has more open-tuned arpeggios and more stretched out but tasteful guitar solos (the 9 minute (!) closer, “Oaks”) and fewer blunt-force boogie riffs but still, there are moments when they open that cobwebbed box from the attic and unpack a vintage Hold Steady guitar construct sturdy enough to build a house on or sink a body with (see “Runner’s High”). That organ’s still there, but in more measured doses that sit back more reasonably in the mix (I swear that by Boys and Girls in America, former keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s parts might as well have been wearing lampshades on their heads.).
While I’ll always treasure those brash, early Hold Steady records (and those records will never go away and will always be available to me and anybody else), I can wholeheartedly approve of the grown-up and stealthy bruisers they’ve matured into. Probably because it gives me hope that I could be a stealthy bruiser too.