It’s fair to say that Thrashing Thru The Passion is the album that some The Hold Steady fans doubted they’d ever see released. When keyboardist (and arguably one of the band members who made the band’s sound so thrilling) Franz Nicolay rejoined The Hold Steady in 2016 after six years away, the band had seemed to settle into semi-retirement.
With Craig Finn‘s solo career becoming ever more prolific, and family commitments becoming ever more important with age, the band seemed happy to stick to weekend residencies (in London, among other places), and releasing the odd one-off track. A full-blown tour and new album seemed to be distant prospects – were the “best bar band in the world”, as Rolling Stone once dubbed them, stepping down a gear?
Thankfully, we now have Thrashing Thru The Passion, the first Hold Steady album since 2014’s Teeth Dreams and the first record to feature Nicolay since 2010’s Heaven Is Wherever. Most of the tracks will be familiar to hardcore Hold Steady fans, as six songs have already been released. In this age of streaming and playlists, it may not make much sense to bundle them all together, but from the opening bars of Denver Haircut, it’s clear that this is the sound of a band revitalized.
One of the big thrills of listening to The Hold Steady is hearing Craig Finn half-sing, half-speak his lyrics – in fact, even calling them ‘lyrics’ seem to be doing him a disservice. Finn is a storyteller, who seems to realise he has around four minutes to tell the audience about his characters and the situations they find themselves in and so throws himself into it like his life depends upon it.
Take the aforementioned Denver Haircut, in which Finn tells, at light speed, of a man who “shaved his head at the airport in a bar at the end of the concourse” who goes to bars and “always orders ‘the usual’, he likes to see what they’ll bring them”, as well as name-checking albums by ’80s hardcore outfit Agnostic Front and Metallica. With the band kicking up a storm behind him, it’s the perfect opener for a Hold Steady album.
You Did Good Kid is possibly the catchiest thing they’ve ever done, and already sounds like an instant classic, while Entitlement Crew will be more than familiar with long-term fans, having originally been released two years ago. The latter feels like it could easily be an off-cut from Boys & Girls In America, with Finn donning the persona of ‘guy feeling a bit out of place at a party’: “I like the party favours, but I hate the party people.”
There’s a Bruce Springsteen flavour to the saxophone-led Traditional Village, while the ‘heist gone wrong’ tale of The Stove & The Toaster is a lot of fun, especially when the horns kick in during the chorus. Star 18, meanwhile, is a classic Finn tale, namedropping Mick Jagger, Mariel Hemingway and “this dude that said he used to play with Peter Tosh, but he never brought it up again once I said ‘man, I don’t believe you'”).
The only issue with Thrashing Thru The Passion is that it does seem a bit thrown together at times, and the new tracks such as Epaulets and Blackout Sam aren’t quite as immediate as the more established songs. There’s also the surprising omission of Esther and Eureka, which are two of the band’s best tracks from recent years and would have fitted in well in this company.
It may not be there with their best work, and it might be seen by some as a bit of a stopgap, but there are still times on Thrashing Thru The Passion that The Hold Steady can effortlessly remind us that they remain the ‘best bar band in the world’.