The Hold Steady navigates punks aging awkwardly

At hardcore shows, there are two kinds of T-shirts: one that says "Straightedge Till Death," and one that says "Straightedge Till Prom." At least that's what Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn observed in a recent interview, and his point illuminates the central issue behind the Brooklyn band's fourth album, Stay Positive: If the all-ages scene thinks life after prom is akin to death, how can punks possibly age gracefully?

Since the Hold Steady formed in 2003, no band has so vividly rendered what it's like to be young and bright and high. Any club kid who's ever scrubbed the X off the back of her hand will see herself in their 2006 single "Massive Nights," a golden snapshot of coked-up glory days when "everyone was partying/and everyone was pretty... the dancefloor was crowded, the bathrooms were worse/we kissed in your car and we drank from your purse." On Stay Positive, that kind of danger no longer feels like glamour. And that's part of what makes it the Hold Steady's most wrenching album: It captures the moment when getting fucked up finally fucks you up for real. "We're tipping over in the taprooms/We're shooting through the ceiling/We're dying in the bathrooms," Finn barks on "Cheyenne Sunrise." His old party friends amount to nothing more than junkies ("Lord, I'm Discouraged") and professional cat-sitters ("Sequestered in Memphis"). The kids aren't alright anymore.

It's telling that Finn's heroes on Stay Positive are mostly guys who never got the chance to get old. Musically, the closest touchstone is the workman's bar-band blues of the early '70s E Street Band — a group whose keyboardist, Danny Federici, died too soon of cancer. But in the punk-grit guitars of tracks like "Navy Sheets," you can also hear the Replacements' Bob Stinson, a hard-living hero who burned out right when he hit Finn's age, 36. And there's gospel in here, too, not only in the holy choral of pub-singalong harmonies, but also in the imagery. The Nebraska-style ballad "Both Crosses" tells the story of a girl named Mary, just like the heroine of all those classic Springsteen songs. Except, fittingly, this Mary is mourning the death of another young townie whose life God claimed early: Jesus.

All this talk of death is also an excuse to plan a resurrection. Finn has always written about Catholicism, most notably on 2005's Separation Sunday, where he suggested that the early Christians were no different than the early punks — just a bunch of rebel outsiders hooked on their own mythology. And Stay Positive is also an album about faith, mostly how hard it is to keep it. Four years ago, Finn kicked off the Hold Steady's debut with a plea for optimism in "Positive Jam": "We gotta start it off with a positive jam." These days, he's more realistic on Stay Positive's title track: "It's one thing to start out with a positive jam, and it's another thing to see it on through." By the closing song, the brass-band boogie "Two-Handed Handshake," he settles for a more attainable goal: "We gotta try a little harder, we gotta be a little better, we gotta pull it back together." Still, there's celebration in those words, and it echoes in the mariachi horns.

There's a phrase that pops up on everything the Hold Steady's done: "It almost killed me." As in, I'm gonna make it through this if it kills me, and it almost killed me. On their previous albums, the "it" has been everything from drugs to girls to actual knife-fights. But when Finn utters that mantra on Stay Positive, he's mostly talking about just getting through another year — a goal all former club kids can relate to. As he notes on the title track, "There's gonna come a time when the true scene leaders/will forget where they differ and get big picture/Because the kids at the shows they'll have kids of their own." What doesn't kill you might not make you stronger, but it definitely makes you grow up.

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