The Hold Steady's new album Boys and Girls in America is the best record of the year (inching the Thermals to the number two spot for those of you keeping track at home). The album embodies everything that was great about Lifter Puller, with the extra panache and classic rock bombast of the Hold Steady, and fulfills all of the hopes we all have had for Finn and Tad Kubler from the beginning. Each track is a well-crafted pop song that contains killer riffs, killer hooks and damn good lyrics. The Hold Steady have always been great, but they never quite locked in all three great aspects of the band at once, until now.
Produced by John Agnello, who worked with the likes of Dinosaur Jr., Drive-By-Truckers and even, yes even, Andrew W.K., the record has a broader, thicker and more sonically satisfying sound that is appropriate for the streamlined simple-is-more feel to the record and may very well result in a wider appeal and easier accessibility.
Boys and Girls, although a party through and through, is much more personal than any of Finn's past efforts. The main themes step away from his examination of other characters and seems to focus on himself. Part of this I attribute to what inspired him to write the album in the first place, a line from Jack Kerouac's On the Road: "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together." According to Finn, the record is simply about love and guys and girls and relationships.
"[The album] is based loosely on one sentence from Kerouac," Finn said. "When I first read it, I didn't get it. I re-read it at 32 and found it to be tremendously funny. It's both maudlin and sad in a Morrissey kind of way, but it was also funny and overdramatic, but also truthful. It's the kind of thing that when I'm 35, I don't understand love and relationships any more than I did at 15. This is a situation that age doesn't even help. So I wrote songs from different angles on that one topic."
This personal quality is enhanced by Finn's shift from his patented stream-of-conscious style of writing to a more repetitive, fanfare-esque fashion that really captures the attention of the listener. I'll admit that I have always enjoyed that off-the-cuff style of Finn gab, but having sing-along choruses does make the record a bit more of a party.
"I sort of made a personal decision lyrically to make repetitive choruses, which is something I haven't done before," Finn said. "There are some more real, actual repetitions for people to hold on to. Trying to get across a sense of celebration and a sense of joy and the 'woah-woah' choruses convey a sense of fun and joy that really add a lot."
A prime example of this transition is "You Can Make Him Like You," which is my favorite track off the record. With a chorus that hooks with the line "There's always other boys/there's always other boyfriends/there's always other boys, you can make them like you," the song is just infectious. Finn is always a step or two away from a clever turn of phrase, which is why he's so cool and this works throughout the entire album.
"We wrote 'You Can Make Him Like You' in the studio," Finn said. "It just sort of fit the flow and it was a fun straightforward song. I liked the idea of it and it was kind of funny and it appealed to me because it was a song I could laugh at."
This sense of humor permeates the entire album and adds to the party atmosphere. This riotous tone is compounded by the blue-collar modern-day Born to Run vibe the record projects, which is perfectly appropriate to the anthemic nature inherent in the band.
Another element that really brings out a new side of the band is the greater integration of keyboard player Franz Nicolay, who, having joined mere weeks before Separation Sunday, never really had a chance to get in the game on the ground floor. Now, presented with the opportunity, he really steps up to the plate.
"We were more aware of space," Finn said. "[We wrote] this record with him; piano is such a dynamic instrument and we allowed space for that. Franz is a really good musician who hangs out with more trained musicians and he kind of lined up the string sections too."
Kubler felt Nicholay has helped the band mature. "Essentially, you want to grow as a band and progress in your craft and instrument and songwriting process," he said. "This [record] is much more deliberate. We wanted to bring out the hooks with less-is-more. I wanted to create more space for Franz to come through as a musician. We wanted to give him space to carry the melody of the record. At times we'd say 'Let's just take out the guitar.'"
It's clear the writing process has become a collaborative effort, which definitely plays to the strengths of each member and it is just as clear that the guys took their time in the studio.
"We just wanted to try new stuff," Kubler said. "It was the first time we ever worked with a producer. We wanted to create a space in the studio where we felt comfortable thinking above and beyond the habits and routines we developed in our songwriting 'to really explore the studio space.' We feel as a band that we accomplished the big rock record [with Separation Sunday]; we wanted to see what else we could do."
The famed Finn-penned characters of Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon take a step back on this record, leaving the concepts behind on Separation Sunday. "I just made them up," Finn said. "They're loosely based on things and people and are composites of people. Gideon isn't this one guy I knew, but is a type of guy I knew. But those characters aren't doing anything in these songs it's not a concept album, it's a scene. They all appear in "First Night," which is an update on what they're up to, but they don't have much to do with the rest of the album. The reason why I didn't write another linear album is because, if I did, I would have to do that for every album for the rest of my life."
Kubler agreed. "We wanted to break the mold and grow as songwriters and maybe the next record will continue in the progression," Kubler said. "We've developed a profound respect for each other like a platoon. We have so much fun doing what we can do, and it's contagious. Here are five guys who genuinely have fun together."
Another change that this album marked was the move from Brooklyn-based indie-trend-setter French Kiss Records to the much larger Vagrant Records.
"Vagrant are our best friends," Finn said. "And French Kiss, those are some of the only guys I hang out with in New York. Vagrant has a way of reaching people outside of the box. With French Kiss, there was limited capital. Separation Sunday seemed like a dog on a chain: it had momentum but could only go so far."
The switch to Vagrant will allow the Hold Steady to reach a greater audience, which isn't losing sight of the band's indie cred but rather bringing more people into the know.
"A part of the closure of the artistic circle is getting feedback from the audience, and the bigger that is, the better it is," Finn said. "I have the most punk cred than anyone I know my age. I want people to not feel excluded in any way."
Boys and Girls In America is a profound record that accurately captures the romantic feelings of the road, youthful optimism and the inevitable frustration that comes with those romantic misconceptions. Finn's self-aware writing brings out a characteristic intrinsic in the very fabric of naive love, which, he explains, never gets over the naive part even as you get older.