The Hold Steady puts the parties in perspective on ‘Teeth Dreams’
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Standard practice in music pre-orders these days is to throw customers a track or two from the record they’ve just purchased. Beyond just a token of gratitude and a perk to a consumer, it can serve a strategic purpose for a band and a mini-statement that foreshadows the rest of the record.
The Hold Steady, then, came out guns blazing a month ahead of their sixth album, Teeth Dreams. Their first album recorded as a three-guitar, no-keyboard lineup, the band unleashed the twin monsters “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and “Spinners” on fans, a deafening blast that sees the bands returning to their earliest work with the added maturity of the years.
That set up conveys a sense of place and urgency that hasn’t existed for The Hold Steady for some time. Opening with the wallop and warning of “I Hope this Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” sets the listener up for another spinning Craig Finn story on the dangers of relationships, drinking and living with any sense of hope. It winds through until the closing epic “Oaks,” and the journey in between is what will put this album in a special place.
No longer just looking for a party and recovering from the hangover, they’re able to pick out the good time and live it up without running themselves into the ground, equal parts cautionary and animated. And while the album doesn’t have a Separation Sunday-style story arc, it’s cohesive in a way that still feels like a furious run from scene to scene, charging ahead and pulling back when necessary.
Starting with the loud, Teeth Dreams kicks into a higher gear on “On with the Business,” with opening guitar blasts and another “about last night” recounting of past foibles and unkept promises spun into a pitch and a hope for more glory ahead. Whether or not those promises are even real or possible are neatly couched and deferred in a quick confession midway through the song:
“I know I made them a promise but those are just words
And words can get weird.”
From there, the record hurls into another story about a girl met at a party on “Big Cig,” and the non-attached, mildly dysfunctional relationship that boils from there. The girl is practically a walking pharmacy and the guy doesn’t know what else to do but to keep showing up and hanging around, tacitly admitting that he wouldn’t know where to go if he left and accepting the lesser position he holds in her life. This mini-trilogy of songs is somewhat wrapped up on “Wait a While,” in that way that relationships are rarely severed as much as they taper away into nothing with both parties wondering happened. Where one song earlier the singer admitted that she could do better, now he’s reeling at the fact that she might be moving on.
So for the hero, it’s growth, reflection and moving on. There’s another confession on “Almost Everything” that “there are nights I get terrified,” and the years are encapsulated on “Oaks” and nearly nine minutes of giant guitars and memories of life as they zoom past the hoards and the hoodrats, taking stock of the highs and lows and mistakes and victories and how they all just add up to create the map of this particular life.
And in that, “Oaks” becomes a microcosm of Teeth Dreams, an album that couldn’t have been made by The Hold Steady at any point other than now. It’s an album that retains the reckless spirit of their best records and tempers it with the wisdom of years. No longer spastic or timid, always sure of themselves, they’re comfortable enough within their own skin to let the music go where it should, and they’re not shy about having it be heard.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org