Craig Finn’s compromised Catholicism, moreso than the boozy, sexy, druggy stuff, is the core of the Hold Steady’s lyrical universe. I have no doubt that the boys in the band have partied hardily in their time, but singing about bar scenes and blackouts is rock and roll orthodoxy. The seedy ciphers who stumble around their mean streets are named Gideon, Charlemagne, and Holly (that’s short for Hallelujah).
The Hold Steady are no one’s disciples if not Springsteen’s, and like him they can perceive the darkness on the edge of town. Their characters have bad break-ups, though those are never as bad as their hook-ups. They overdose. And something darker? Does our lost party girl in “One for the Cutters” witness a townie’s murder – or commit one? We don’t know what becomes of the protagonist in “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” but the narrator loses his faith as he watches her grow sick and bruised from drug use and domestic violence, missing church and selling her jewelry to pay for her habit.
Through all the grittiness, the Hold Steady always come back to Good Friday and Easter Sunday: betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. Their Catholic imaginary always returns them to the theme of redemption. That’s why they can release an album with both of the songs described above under the title Stay Positive and mean it sincerely. Unlike most of their peers in the indie scene, the Hold Steady’s sensibility leaves no room for irony.
Rather, they write tragicomedies, set in a moral universe similar to Shakespeare’s romances. Tragedy, in its ancient and Shakesperean modes, is defined by it’s melancholy understanding of time. It flows only in one direction, and all actions, though freely chosen, are irreversible. We can only watch their consequences roll darkly outward. The romance promises reconciliation. Shakespeare’s always end in weddings and reunions, with the reforging of what the tragic imagination must leave permanently broken. Whereas community and self there dissolve into violence, the romantic conceit is the reversal of the Fall. It is Messianic. The New Testament is the most auspicious romance ever penned. In it, reunion does not end with the human family split at Eden, but even bridges the unbridgeable chasm between God and human kind. That kind of romance has little sway among indie ironists – even the ultra-sincere Arcade Fire cannot muster such redemptive optimism.
But so goes Finn’s Catholic rock and roll romance. Even the worst decisions can be reversed. His characters frequently identify with Judas, and why not, for they betray themselves constantly. They throw themselves into rivers, wander drunk, collapse, take too many drugs. And yet nothing is ever lost for good. The drug addled protagonists of “Killer Parties” might depart from their bodies, but they always wake up in Ybor City. Halleljuah the hoodrat, “She’s been stranded at these parties/ these parties they start lovely but they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody” – and she disappears. But that’s not the end of her. “She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass/ she was limping left on broken heels/when she said Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”
That track, “How A Resurrection Really Feels,” shows up on Separation Sunday. And careful listeners will realize that the woman who struggles two albums later on “Discouraged” – that’s the same Hallelujah. Still disappearing, still roughed up, but Finn already knows that in the end, old Holly’s gonna “walk on back.“