ALBUM REVIEW: The Hold Steady - The Price of Progress
The New York-based band's trademarks shine on ninth studio album
The Hold Steady have honed their craft in classic rock observational vignettes over the 20 years since forming in Minneapolis, and ninth studio album, The Price of Progress, doesn’t veer too far off this path.
There’s familiarity in the songs and guitarist/vocalist, Craig Finn’s inimitable narration, yet this doesn’t mean a let-up in quality.
The tightness of the music remains ever-present and, aside from the stories and compelling lyrics contained in the 10 tracks, it’s Franz Nicolay’s imaginative keyboards which stand out on the album.
Opening track, ‘Grand Junction’s itchy guitar is lifted by Nicolay’s joyful synth-keyboard to create an uplifting scene-setter with lyrics concerning philosophical conversations between a couple (or former couple).
The guitars get heavier in second song, ‘Sideways Skull’ – an obvious choice for the album’s lead single as an edgy headbanger, demonstrating no mellowing of their sound despite the group being in their 40s and 50s. ‘Sideways Skull’ follows the blossoming friendship of the narrator with a female singer and her band living on the margins of society.
Mental health and toxic masculinity collide in ‘Carlos is Crying’ as the routine description of ‘Carlos’ and his concerns about his sister’s relationship with a wrong’un turn into a shocked narration of the character having a breakdown about the situation and later lamenting what his life has amounted to while Finn offers reassurance. Descriptions of Carlos’s bewildered friends suggest this is totally out of character with the emotions exhibited scaring them, and the tale serves as a timely reminder of the ticking timebombs men can be without sharing their feelings.
Latest single, ‘Understudies’, sees the main character struggle for balance in coming down from the huge highs of being an acclaimed actor and the acclaim which comes with it, ‘Sixers’ is a touching ode to the desire for human connection and ‘Perdido’ conveys the awkwardness of sticking out a holiday despite the person you are there with ending the relationship early in the trip.
‘The Birdwatchers’ is bookended by mysterious-sounding xylophone (not too dissimilar to the X Files theme tune) and tells the story of a couple of friends seeking thrills, which point to the illicit, under cover of birdwatching. The nefarious atmosphere draws you in with the true nature never fully expressed making it an enigmatic highlight.
Closing track, ‘Flyover Halftime’, is as silly as The Price of Progress gets with Finn narrating a trip to watch an American football match with a friend. The pair proceed to get drunk at the tailgate party, are barely conscious by the traditional pre-match national anthems and Finn’s friend then spots an opportunity to run onto the pitch and grab the ball with predictable consequences. In other band’s hands, this could be a bad idea for a song, but with The Hold Steady it fits and is witty as is much of the lyricism throughout.
Every song adds something to the party and, as alternatives to reading a selection of short stories or watching a TV series goes, you can do no worse than listen to The Price of Progress.
Finn says about the album: “These are some of the most cinematic songs in The Hold Steady catalogue and the record was a joy to make.” Listening to the album, you’d be hard pressed to disagree.
The Price of Progress is released on Friday (31 March) via Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers.