It’s usually around this time of year that The Hold Steady fans make their annual pilgrimage to London. The Hold Steady Weekender every March has become something of an institution in the last few years, where the band play Friday and Saturday night at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, followed by a Sunday lunchtime gig at an even more intimate venue.
It did seem for a while that this was The Hold Steady’s future – the group acclaimed as ‘America’s greatest bar band’ by Rolling Stone magazine concentrating on live performances and connecting with adoring fans. Fate had other plans though, and with live events currently just a distant memory, anyone yearning for another THS Weekender will have to settle for a live streamed version from New York instead. There is, however, room for a brand new album (recorded during the last half of 2019) – and what an album it is.
Open Door Policy is quite possibly the best Hold Steady album since 2008’s Stay Positive. The temporary departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay seemed to knock the band’s identity a bit – that change in chemistry robbed them of what had made them great. His return was a welcome one, but the band’s last album Thrashing Thru The Passion still seemed to have something missing.
It’s clear from the first chords of opening track The Feelers that the missing piece has been restored. It’s the sound of a band refreshed and refocused – a distillation of all the things that made them so exciting in the first place. Switching effortlessly between piano ballad and surging rocker, it’s one of those songs that immediately pulls you in, with Craig Finn’s trademark half-spoken, half-sung drawl painting a vivid lyrical portrait with lines like “she had the aura of an angel, but she had a couple of problems, I guess the big one is she’s someone else’s wife”.
There’s certainly a formula to successful Hold Steady songs, but it’s a formula that’s successfully tweaked with each release. Family Farm is a classic Craig Finn stomper – underneath the surging brass lies a sad tale of residents of a mental health institution, while there’s even room for namechecks of Van Halen and Talking Heads songs. It’s Finn’s stories, sometimes replete with callbacks to previous songs, that make The Hold Steady so addictive – lines like “it turns out California is just tripping and disinterested kissing” in Lanyards beautifully sum up images and characters in just one line. This time around, there’s an added wistfulness that comes with age: “I no longer see the romance in these ghosts” as the standout Unpleasant Breakfast puts it.
Those stories wouldn’t be the same without that musical chemistry that The Hold Steady have built up over two decades. Heavy Covenant is built upon Nicholay’s magisterial synth chords, while Ted Kubler’s guitar work on Me & Magdelena raises the song to another level. The addition of a brass section on several tracks gives them a more muscular edge as well, especially on live anthem-in-waiting Riptown.
It’s in the live arena that The Hold Steady make the most sense of course, and there’s a bittersweet edge listening to Open Door Policy, knowing that we’ll still have to wait an unspecified length of time to hear these songs in their natural environment of a crowded mosh pit. Nevertheless, that doesn’t detract from the sheer quality of Open Door Policy – the best thing Finn and company have produced in over a decade.