The Hold Steady's singer and songwriter, Craig Finn, grew up Catholic in Minneapolis, and his songs are four-minute episodes of suburban Midwestern teenage identity crisis. Sex, drugs and rock and roll in fields and on the banks of rivers and in the basements of houses, set to classic rock-style riffs with a religious undercurrent always pulling at the characters. The Hold Steady's music, said Finn, is "about people going wildly between extremes and trying to find the middle."
Separation Sunday, the band's second record, is populated by drug addicts, skaters and "hoodrat chicks" with names like Hallelujah and Charlemagne, bumming around at parties, wrestling with their own morality while they smoke, drink, tune in and drop out. Finn is fascinated by this struggle, and explores it through the juxtaposition of religious allusions and "party imagery."
"There are very few people that have no concept of right from wrong, but there are a lot of people who don't make the right decisions, or decisions that are in line with their idea of right from wrong, so it's interesting for me, in the case of an addict, to see the automatic pilot that takes over that leads them to get more drugs, even though they know it's wrong," explained Finn.
The characters in the songs exude a deep but corrupted religious connection: In "Cattle and Creeping Things," there's a girl who has "a cross around her neck that she took from a schoolgirl on the subway on a visit to the city / She likes how it looks on her chest with three open buttons," and a boy who has "pages in his pocket that he ripped from the Bible from the bedstand in his motel / He likes the part where the traders get chased from the temple." The characters' hold on religion is ironic, and when Finn likens Biblical images to drugs, the irony becomes acerbic: "If small-town cops are like swarms of flies / and if blackened foil is like boils and hail / then I'm pretty sure we've been through this before / Seems like a simple place to score."
But even while the characters are being born again on drugs, the Southern classic rock the lyrics are set to gives it an innocent sense of nostalgia, and the struggle between conservative religious morality and drug culture is revealed for what it really is: an identity crisis. If you are raised by one extreme, the logical progression is to venture to the other side. As Finn points out, the change also just seems more extreme because "It's like a number line. Three is further away from negative-three than it is from zero.
"In my experience, the people I've known, some of the people who have gone furthest out have had the furthest to jump from, so to speak, and that's kind of what the record speaks to," said Finn. "I think in the country, the political and social environment right now is extremes; there isn't a lot of middle."
And so the religious allusions represent family, and the drugs the wider world, and the characters naturally mix the two as they try to figure out the right combination that won't make them explode.
"The Catholocism angle is really representing a conservative morality, an extremely rooted morality," said Finn, "and people push out and try to experiment with different things. There's always this voice in the back of their head, and if religion or some real strong sense of conservative morality is part of their past in any way, it's always kind of there, and it's always there as something to come back to, and that's what it represents to me in terms of the record."
Separation Sunday's sound is like when the Lynyrd Skynyrd on one station and the Led Zeppelin on another blend on the radio dial as you turn it; guitars, tambourines, horns, organs and vocal harmonies make for gospel rock that is the stereotypical soundtrack for teenagers growing up in the '70s and '80s in Midwestern suburbia. The Hold Steady started out as a classic rock cover band for a comedy troupe in New York, and once its members started writing original songs, they stuck with that sound.
"The lyrics are very much written from a teenage perspective," said Finn. "I was 16, 17 in '88, '89 and all that music was already 10, 15 years old; however, going back to those years where I think my lyrical voice is centered, before there was alternative-rock radio, before there was alternative rock, I spent a lot of time in my car driving around in the suburbs listening to classic-rock radio, so the two paths fit together. Even though my teenage years weren't while Led Zeppelin (was still) around, they were still part of the high school experience."
Although The Hold Steady's music and lyrics wax nostalgic, they are far from unoriginal; the very decision to go back to classic rock was in opposition to the dance music that permeated the New York City music scene when the band first began a few years ago, and the band fully embraces all kinds of non-traditional marketing techniques, such as being featured in a Internet sitcom (OddsAgainst7even.com) funded by Target.
"The whole thing was super positive for us and the reality of it is, with all the technology whatnot that's available today, and people are definitely selling less records, there's a chance that artists are going to have to look more for these types of opportunities to stay alive," said Finn.
And, as Finn pointed out, it allows their music to reach precisely the kind of audience that peoples his songs: Like the college students in the sitcom, who are trying to bring a band to their school to help invigorate their existence, teenagers looking for a way out of suburbia look toward rock and roll (and sometimes drugs) to help them find some kind of solace.
"In indie rock there's this sort of elitest thing. Most people who have heard of us already are not going to hear about us at Target, nor are they buying their music at Target," said Finn. "I don't want to get into a situation at any point where it's like if you don't read Pitchfork then you can't hear about us, because that's not where we're coming from."
Where The Hold Steady is coming from is a middle America that is searching for a middle ground through music, a place where "We mix our mythologies / we push out through PA systems / We dictate our doxologies / and try to get these clever kids to shut up and listen" ("Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night"). But, as Finn continues in the chorus, "I'm not saying we could save you / But I could take you to a place where you can save yourself / and if you don't get born again / at least you'll be high as hell."