A couple of years ago, the stars aligned, and I received as concrete proof as I’ll ever get that fate exists.
Long story short, I not only found myself in London on a Saturday in March, the same day as the Hold Steady’s Weekend but I also found a ticket on Twickets.
What happened in Camden’s Electric Ballroom that night is one of the top ten gigs I’ve ever seen, and was one of those life affirming nights.
A few days later I relayed this story to a mate of mine who lives down there. His replied stuck with me: “I dunno, man.” He wrote. “Some friends love that band more than Christmas Dinner. I don’t get it. He doesn’t even sing.”
And, that ladies and gentlemen, is why, basically, reviewing “Open Door Policy” is largely pointless, because those that get….it…..will love it and rightly proclaim this as Album Of The Year. Those that don’t understand will be left bemused.
Because, while, if we torture the Christmas analogy a little further, if I am here with party hat on ready to empty my sack all over the place (as it were) then “Open Door Policy” is – even by THS standards – the one that sounds kinda freaky.
Recorded in 2019 – not too long after the wonderful return “Thrashing Thru The Passion” was released, the pandemic put it’s release on hold. Oddly, in these current times, the tales it contains – largely surrounding mental health and isolation – seem ever more relevant.
“The Feelers” is typical Hold Steady if you like. That is to say, it sounds like them and only them. Craig Finn talks his words, the music carries on behind him as if it is oblivious, and he talks about “specific British Clipper ships,” and discusses love in its raw.
In common with many of their opening songs, its sort of understated. “Spices”, ups things, but very much in the brave new world. See, this version of the band continues their expanded line up. Horn sections, synths, all sorts of things. Anything goes, the in jokes though, they remain. “If the band ever plays the resurrection, its at the end of the show,” teases Finn. He’s writing about themselves here and their fan favourite (they played it in London that night, too).
This album is built on a huge soundscape, and the cinematic feel is extended given the fact that most of the time, it feels like we are in the middle of stories with no linear progression. The huge sounding “Lanyards” deals with small town frustration, “Family Farm” thunders in like some Asbury Jukes tune, but then takes us to a mental health facility, where the nurse has Van Halen on her ringtone.
“Unpleasant Breakfast” is stunning, frankly. It even has a funky, almost disco, beat. It feels like the centrepiece too, given the way it explodes, while “Heavy Covenant” is like the most straight ahead rocker in this canon, perhaps. It was one of the singles that was released before the record came out, and is more proof of the talent of guitarist Tad Kubler.
“Prior Procedure” mixes indie guitar with a desire to be an Elton John tune from the 1970s. “Riptide” is one of the ones that will draw what are – in my opinion – redundant comparisons with Bruce Springsteen. This band, beyond brilliance, have nothing in common with anything you’d find on E.St.
Maybe the best thing here is “Me And Magdalena”. My favourite HS album is their debut. This one has the same vibe. Even if we are all getting on for 20 years older.
The last one, “Hannover Camera”, can almost be seen as bringing us full circle. Like the opener, understated, but with added sax, to give it a sleazy soul club feel.
And one thing I’ve not really – and deliberately so – talked about at length is the lyrics. Because, frankly, you could type every one out, that’s how good they are. That’s how original this is. Suffice to say this, if you’re a fan of language, then the way Finn writes is like nothing on earth. He’s the master. Simple as that.
The true genius of “Open Door Policy” though, is this: it sounds just like The Hold Steady, but at the same time like nothing they’ve done before. That’s why I am calling it now. This is the album of the year.