At this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, the Hold Steady tore through a loud and rambunctious set of balls-out rock with evident passion and glee. Frontman Craig Finn egged the crowd on with irrepressible energy—throwing his hands in the air, running up right to the edge of the stage and leaning over, as if he might transmit some of his overflowing happiness directly to the fans if he could only get a little bit closer. On stage, the Hold Steady are infectiously engaged performers; their wide eyes, big dumb riffs, and two-necked guitar solos have renewed my faith in good old rock and roll’s continued power to create experiences of cathartic fist-pumping joy.
Stay Positive, the new Hold Steady record, is (for better or worse) a much less joyous affair than the band’s live performances. If 2006′s Boys and Girls in America was a boozy, rollicking party staggering toward dawn, Stay Positive is the depressing hangover lingering well into the next afternoon. As on the three previous Hold Steady albums, Finn spins engrossing poetry about parties, drugs, groupies, and God, all channeled through the persona of a jaded, aging scenester. But while the previous records tended to feature both the giddy, excited rush of high times and also the sometimes unpleasant consequences, on Stay Positive, Finn narrows his attention to focus primarily on what (and who) gets lost, battered, and broken by the time the wild night drags to its druggy, thoroughly messed-up close.
“Sequestered in Memphis” at first seems little more than another wry and catchy Craig Finn tune about a party gone awry—this time the characters end up in court, but otherwise it’s basically the same old story. But here Finn is also using the song as a frame in order to hint at some meta-frustrations: “I guess I’ll tell this story again,” he says, heavily self-conscious that he’s re-working the same lyrical territory yet again. It’s a hint of a confession—one which the album’s closer, “Slapped Actress,” completes with thorough, uncomfortable, and surprising honesty. With “Sequestered,” Finn sets us up for what would seem to be an ironic nod-and-wink between performer and audience, a tip of his hand, a peek into his bag of songwriting tricks—but then with “Slapped Actress,” he quite unexpectedly goes for the throat (his and ours both). After describing fans at a show “pushing to get closer / looking upwards with wonder,” Finn switches to a film metaphor, putting himself in the role of John Cassavetes directing an actor to give Gena Rowlands a real slap in the face. “Our hands will hold steady,” he sings, self-conscious and self-lacerating. “Let me know when you’re ready.” When art stays true to the pain at its source, Finn seems to be saying, both the performer and the audience become complicit in that pain. “Sometimes actresses get slapped,” he sings. “Some nights, making it look real might end up with someone getting hurt.” It’s not just Finn’s drug dealers and crooked scenesters who act to exploit the fresh-faced kids on the scene; it’s also the performers and the audience.
This song’s self-consciousness casts a very dark shadow over the whole of the album, and particularly the several songs (“Lord, I’m Discouraged,” “Yeah Sapphire,” “Magazines,” “Joke About Jamaica,” “Sequestered in Memphis”) which focus on young, adventurous, and somewhat naive women getting into serious trouble, and also on the scenester men who sometimes love them, but invariably end up exploiting them. On Stay Positive the scenesters are “vampires” who use up women, discard them, and then write empty, emotionally dead songs about it. With “Slapped Actress,” Finn obliterates the safe distance between his persona and the genuine grimness and pain in the stories he tells. He steps down from the director’s chair and turns the camera on himself, and sees his hand raised to do violence, and the audience cheering all the while.
I’ve found it hard to decide how I ultimately feel about this—Finn’s honesty is admirable, but at the same time it leaves a distinctly bitter taste in my mouth. And then there’s also the question of where exactly this leaves Finn as a lyricist. Now that he’s put all his cards on the table, and fully deconstructed his persona, what comes next? And what does all the raucous, cathartic joy of the band’s Pitchfork performance mean, exactly, if it’s self-consciously laced not only with the acknowledgment of pain, but also of exploitation?
One possible answer to this question might be found in thinking about Truman Capote, who could never really write again after he came to realize the degree to which he played the role of exploiter when crafting his masterwork In Cold Blood. If great art must channel real suffering, how can any artist avoid exploitation? Perhaps it’s impossible—and perhaps Finn’s self-conscious, self-lacerating admission of this fact in song is better than Capote’s descent into silence and despair.