If you got interested in The Hold Steady thanks to their last two albums, you may be in for a surprise on the new one. “Someone was remarking on the lack of whoa-whoa-whoas,” singer/songwriter/guitarist Craig Finn says of the sing-along choruses that defined 2006’s Boys and Girls in America and 2008’s Stay Positive, yet are largely absent from the new Heaven Is Whenever. “We did plenty of that. I still look forward to playing those songs. But on your fifth record, you understand that there’s probably going to be a sixth. It’s not like do or die. It has its own momentum now.”
Heaven Is Whenever is The Hold Steady at its most spacious. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay amicably left the band this winter to pursue solo work, and Finn, guitarist Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka, and drummer Bobby Drake opted to remain a quartet. “The songs were written without [piano], so they inherently have more space,” Finn says over coffee near his Greenpoint, Brooklyn home. “I think there’s less of a drive to fill up every available corner with bells and whistles.”
That comfort also spills into the band’s burgeoning role of rock elders. “Soft in the Center,” which Finn calls an “advice song,” features the lyric, “I know what you’re going through / I had to go through that too.” “When you’re 22 or 19, there’s things you think you can’t miss,” Finn says. “Then you get to 38 and you’re home at 9 o’clock and you feel like, ‘God, I could miss just about anything. The second coming of Christ? I don’t know—let’s see if Drugstore Cowboy is on’.”
Not that the band will take it easy any time soon: A mix of festivals and club dates fills their spring, with more touring likely for later in the year. One reason Heaven Is Whenever sounds so lived-in, Finn says, is that many of the songs were road-tested before they hit the studio. Not only that, but the band tried several numbers in different keys, eventually recording 24 songs (10 are on the album). “There wasn’t a lot of talk,” he says. “There was a lot more action. You start to have frank discussions.: ‘I know it’s done, but do you see it making the record?’ Or, ‘I think we could do some cooler stuff on guitar if it were in A rather than G.’
Finn sees the theme of the new album as embedded in its title. “I was thinking a lot about struggle and reward,” he says. “Heaven is the ultimate reward in the Christian sense. The record’s kind of about understanding struggle as part of the reward itself. Did you see An Education? She has this opportunity to kind of skip ahead, marry someone older who’s rich, and not have to deal with being bored and not affording things and not having trips to Paris. But that trip to Paris you finally get to take with your friends is going to be sweeter than being whisked off, sort of out of time and out of place. You’re really experiencing it. It’s sweeter if you struggle.”
“Listen to “Hurricane J from Heaven Is Whenever on the Paste & Starbucks Music Channel.