You only call yourself The Hold Steady if you think most people aren’t holding steady to start with. Perhaps the main reason the band is always compared to Springsteen is because, as is the case with The Boss’ work, the main purpose of their songs is to give their listeners a reason to stand stalwart against life’s assailing tides with the help of spitfire lyrics and old-fashioned rock and roll guitars. Craig Finn and company have always known the recipe to serve up rock as inspiring as it is distinctly American, but sometimes they lose the spices to make it more than formulaic. Luckily, Teeth Dreams is one of their more pleasant confections to date.
Finn isn’t about to drop his Paul-Westerberg-as-English-professor persona anytime soon. Since he first sang “There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right” on 2006’s Boys & Girls in America, the youthful ennui and sideways, melancholy optimism of the Beats has rested on his head. Boys & Girls was an ode to drug-addled teens and twentysomethings looking out for holistic redemption in the midst of short-lived, visceral thrills. In the years since its release, The Hold Steady put out a few enjoyable records, but Teeth Dreams is the first to match its scope, hope and realism.
A guy with an upside-down cross carved into his arm and a girl who started smoking cigarettes at seven years old are the kinds of characters you find yourself in the company of when this record gets going. In Finn’s world, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. He only has time for the mad ones, the bar flies and the bottoms of the barrels. If these people can be helped out and celebrated by his crafty wordplay, so can the rest of us.
Musically, Teeth Dreams borrows from all the great American garage and bar-room rock of decades gone by. You can hear the usual suspects on all the tracks: Springsteen, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü are all haunting the sidelines of each guitar riff and turn of phrase, but so are Big Star’s heavier moments and hints of latter-day Dylan. The slower jams like “The Ambassador” and “Almost Everything” hit on chords and quiet subtleties that wake up the same heartstrings you felt tugged upon when you first heard the Mats’ “Here Comes a Regular.” Needless to say, most of the tracks here are upbeat and wild because the band knows what it does best.
Teeth Dreams is the first time since Boys & Girls in America that The Hold Steady toes that perfect line between adolescent, backseat make-out sessions and stoned, intellectual discourse on the human condition. They make you feel older and more scarred by life than you want to be and then more vibrantly young and hopeful than you thought you ever could be again, sometimes within the same song. It’s good to see them claiming their birthright once again.