Over their 10-year career, the Hold Steady have strategically amassed a catalogue of songs often centered on a recurring group of characters. Craig Finn introduced listeners to tragic heroes and fallen friends caught up in the partying lifestyle, formed from the amalgamation of acquaintances and fictional figures. His spoken delivery embraced witty double entendres, juxtaposing modern jargon with scholarly diction as he portrayed the ups and downs of the down-and-outs. And somehow, he always seemed to stay positive.
With “Teeth Dreams,” the band’s sixth studio album and the first on their own Washington Square label, hitting stores late last month, Finn’s songs seem to have naturally evolved from the post-adolescent party to the inevitable adult hangover. These are cautionary tales and proof that yesterday’s kicks become tomorrow’s bruises.
“It’s definitely the darkest Hold Steady record,” says Finn. “While the others had been especially hopeful and maybe positive and optimistic, this one may hold back on that optimism a bit. Writing this record, I wasn’t in a particularly bad place or anything, I was just fascinated with anxiety and the idea of mental health and the way we treat it nowadays and the way we deal with our neuroses.”
With such a repertoire of decadent characters, Finn says that his narrative had to change and that those wandering from the straight-and-narrow will inevitably fall.
“We started the band 10 years ago, and for the past 10 years I’ve known a lot of people close to me that have struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues,” he says. “I’m 42. When you’re 32 you might still be going along and having a good time, but at some point it starts to drag you down. ... [Now] I’m trying to write characters that are a little older.
I think that’s a challenge, and it always has been. Rock ‘n’ roll is often about a teenager and a convertible. ... It’s 50 and 60 years old now, so it doesn’t have to be. Great artists like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young have written great songs about adults.”
If their message seems heavy, their instrumentation is even heavier — any somber sentiment quickly finds solace by leaning against the towering guitar solos that were hinted at before, but are now realized in skyscraping realities. The guitars have finally soared to reach Thin Lizzy heights, while Finn’s lyrics are still born to run