What makes the Hold Steady great is their ability to write heartbreaking songs that tell of wild teen years, substance abuse, and jaded Christianity. Craig Finn hones his prowess as a lyricist in their third and best release, Boys and Girls in America, and in so doing makes the album of the year.
On this album, the Hold Steady improve their take on the “Springsteen” sound with a new maturity. The riffs are better, and overall they sound more musical than they ever have before. And Finn crafts some of his most poignant lyrics yet. Separation Sunday was linked by its stories of lost faith and its tales of characters who partake in youthful extravagance, getting wasted and having fun. But this album, instead of glorifying youth, looks back with remorse. The first verse of the album establishes that theme with a nod to Kerouac: “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right / Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.”
Finn’s best lyrics take him back to high school, a time he looks back on with sadness. He considers the betrayals of past relationships: “I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.” On “Massive Nights,” he regrets the nights of partying: “We had some massive highs / we had some crushing lows.”
A highpoint of Boys and Girls in America, “First Night,” is the only song that revisits the characters from the previous album. Charlemagne is “shaking in the streets,” Gideon is an addict, and Finn’s oft-used heroine Holly is in the hospital: “She don’t look like the same girl we met / on that first night.” Later, depression seizes Holly when she realizes she can’t get as high as she used to get, revealing how youthful recklessness has left these characters in a ditch.
The Hold Steady are often referred to as “America’s #1 bar band.” While there certainly is a lot of drinking on their albums, a more accurate nickname might simply be “America’s #1 Band.”