If you’d told me earlier this year that my early favorite song from the new Hold Steady album, Boys and Girls in America, would be a piano ballad, I would have called you crazy. If you’d told me ten years ago, I would have nodded, pretended I knew exactly what you were talking about, and gone back my dorm room and played my two-year-old Bush cassette. You would have waged an epic mental struggle over whether and with what degree of savagery to mock me, but then you would have recalled that when I showed up at college my CD collection was largely dominated by George Strait albums, and that I’d argued with more zeal than was strictly necessary that “The Chair” was one of the greatest songs ever written. Bush, you would have thought to yourself, was progress, however slight. If you’d told me twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have paid a bit of attention because I would have been too busy explaining the minutiae of Zork I: The Great Underground Empire, with a particular emphasis on how much trouble I had solving the Flood Control Damn #3 puzzle; I would probably have said “Hello, Sailor!” in the hopes that someone, somewhere in Mississippi would understand that bit of Infocomese inside jokery, and whatever sympathy or, let’s be honest, pity, you might have felt for me would have evaporated as it became apparent that yes, that smell was me. If you’d told me 60,000 years ago in my previous incarnation as a Paleolithic caveman, I would have beaten you to death with a large flat rock. Nothing personal.
Anyway, yeah, the title of this post is from “First Night,” one of the standout tracks on the new Hold Steady record—and one that bids farewell to the un/holy trinity of Charlemagne, Gideon, and Holly, characters who weave drunkenly through the previous two albums, by looking back to their first meeting, when Holly was “golden with barlight and beer.” It’s a song that shows off all the new moves the boys have learned for this album: Craig Finn sings instead of shouts, the piano they rescued from a dumpster on E Street fills the air with smoke, and Elizabeth Elmore’s backing vocals are a spoonful of sugar that doesn’t help the medicine go down so much as it helps keep down the pills dissolving in your otherwise empty stomach. The general direction seems to be towards integrating Finn’s vocals with the band more than on past releases; it’s an interesting idea that pays off here and on some of the other quieter songs. Elsewhere, though, Finn’s lyrics get lost in an occasionally sludgy mix—and since the lyrics are at least half the reason we’re here, that’s probably the album’s biggest weakness. True, the mix sounds better through headphones than in the car, but come on: this album isn’t just about classic rock, it is classic rock. It should really sound best bleeding through the windows of a car making slow laps around a gas station. Hell, maybe it does. I haven’t actually tried that yet. Anyone wants to try it out, you let me know.