Craig Finn has said that the difference between his solo material and The Hold Steady’s songs is often one of scale. With The Hold Steady, Finn seeks big subjects to match the big riffs, while his quieter solo material can focus on smaller moments. If that distinction held true at first, the lines get pretty blurry on the band’s new album.
There are still riffs aplenty, and big subjects, on Open Door Policy, but these 10 new songs mix them in among more textured arrangements and understated details reminiscent of Finn’s four solo albums. The convergence of Finn’s solo sensibility with The Hold Steady’s was probably inevitable: As Finn has become more nuanced in his storytelling, his songs sometimes benefit from a subtler approach. Of course, “subtle” is a relative term for a band whose identity is rooted in adrenalizing guitar riffs and caustic lyrics about ne’er-do-wells doing what they do best.
Finn seems to have retired the recurring characters who populated the band’s early albums, but the people in his songs on Open Door Policy are still scheming and still falling short, held down by the weight of their own faulty preconceptions. Yet for all his subjects’ self-destructive impulses, Finn mostly manages to make them at least a little bit sympathetic: They’ve made their beds, sure, but you still hope they have sense enough not to get in and pull up the covers. Good sense tends to be in short supply in The Hold Steady’s songs, where street smarts are a more valuable commodity for the shady pursuits occupying these characters. Finn’s protagonists are always playing the angles, whether it’s the aspiring actor “trying to make moves” on “Lanyards,” the woman who falls for a junkie singer on “Me & Magdalena” or the software salesman indulging his vices on the road on “Heavy Covenant.”
Beneath the surface-level details of money, fame or a high, all of these characters are after one thing: status. It’s a running theme on Open Door Policy, often with an undercurrent of mordant wit. That software salesman, for example, pitches his products to “hospitals and local governments” to increase their efficiency. “It’s a pretty heavy covenant,” Finn sings, a deadpan skewering of a protagonist trying to make himself believe he’s a crucial cog, even as he scrolls through Tinder and palms musicians money for drugs.
Finn’s richly descriptive lyrics come accompanied by The Hold Steady’s most musically expansive arrangements so far. From the start, Tad Kubler’s powered-up riffs defined the band’s sound, and Steve Selvidge was a potent addition when he joined as a second (or third, if you count Finn) guitarist in 2010, after keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the group. Nicolay rejoined in 2016, rejuvenating The Hold Steady’s sound and helping to make their 2019 album Thrashing Thru the Passion a return to form that was all the more pleasurable for being unexpected.
Open Door Policy is unexpected, too, though for different reasons. Instead of relying on riffs, as the band’s past albums have tended to do, they’re deployed here with greater strategy. Guitars take the lead on “Family Farm,” blasting through the song with horns and piano swirling in their wake, and the effect is full-on vintage Hold Steady. Elsewhere, though, Kubler and Selvidge serve the songs in other ways. Opener “The Feelers” starts with somber piano, and the guitars augment the soulful, melancholy arrangement as the song builds, rather than dominating it. Credit goes to the rhythm section on “Heavy Covenant,” where drummer Bobby Drake and bassist Galen Polivka lock in on a sleek groove with room for growling power chords, keening synths and huge, glorious horn parts that propel the song through the choruses.
Drake anchors “Me & Magdalena,” too, steering the song through sections that showcase all the band’s strengths in one near-perfect package. There’s a sturdy, thumping beat, bursts of chaotic churning that erupt and recede, piano vamps and searing lead guitar, while Finn alternates between talk-ranting and singing a narrative packed with vivid specifics. The track is the most cohesive the latter-day Hold Steady lineup has sounded, and though Open Door Policy is so strong a record that there’s no one centerpiece, “Me & Magdalena” is definitely a highlight.
Maybe the most impressive thing about the band’s eighth album is how the group continues to push beyond its own boundaries. After a two-album stale patch a decade ago, The Hold Steady have rebounded to become more adventurous than they were before, and Finn’s storytelling has never been stronger.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.