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The Hold Steady - Open Door Policy (Album Review)

Thursday, 25 February 2021 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Adam Parshall

Something that begins to creep into your life as you grow older is a sort of bargaining over a night on the town—will the amount of fun you have outweigh the pain of the following day’s hangover? The Hold Steady have soundtracked a good many massive nights in the past couple of decades, but on their new LP ‘Open Door Policy’ Craig Finn always has one eye on a spiralling set of consequences.

This is the veteran Brooklyn group’s second release since reuniting with pianist Franz Nicolay, but their first to take on the weight and seriousness of a back-to-front album. ‘Thrashing Thru The Passion’, released to good notices in 2019, was more a collection of singles, a shoot-from-the-hip burst of riff-driven jams from musicians rediscovering some old form thanks to some fresh chemistry.

With guitarist Steve Selvidge also in harness alongside Nicolay and Finn’s main songwriting foil Tad Kubler, here The Hold Steady slide into a groove that prioritises texture and subtle instrumental chops.

Working with returning producer Josh Kaufman—a key voice in Finn’s solo work recently returned from helping to bring Taylor Swift’s pandemic double-header to life—they largely choose horn flourishes and heavy-lidded keys over distortion and rafter-shaking bombast.

It’s a wise decision, as Finn has rarely sounded so insular. Some of the more searching, grounded elements of his recent albums bleed through into the lurid world of The Hold Steady, and this record’s drug deals and beer-fuelled trysts exist alongside twin spectres of desperation and hard luck. 

Spices finds a perfect balance between these two creative starting points, melding celebratory hooks with lyrics that tell the real story. “She makes it really clear that she's a way different person than the person that I knew in the past,” Finn sings. “But once she starts rolling it's wild like the ocean and the ocean is violent and vast.” The whiplash effect settles in like a moment of clarity in a dive bar: are you really having a good time, or do you just think that you should be having a good time?

This is the first record from The Hold Steady that might be considered a studio exercise over an attempt to bottle their righteous live energy. As such, it’s a work of its time as much as it’s an indicator that there is plenty of mileage left in the tank for one of the great modern American rock bands.

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