In these days of viral album leaks and varied product dates, pre-release streams of entire albums are becoming increasingly popular. What this means for us is a valid, legal opportunity to reflect on the album before it hits the world, before the in depth follow up that naturally results from spending many intimate hours together after its release.
It's timely, then, that NPR is offering long-time H-T-A favourites The Hold Steady's new record in full stream here, up until the moment it comes out on May 4th. Entitled Heaven Is Whenever, let's have a listen and see if it might actually be right here, right now.......
As this one kicks off with Sweet Part of the City, an air of an old style country-rock (or, indeed, a contemporary indie copycat) pervades, with even singer Craig Finn's normally predominant vocal subsumed by the wide-open rural guitars. This feels quite removed from the expected, but not unnatural and certainly not unwelcome, with the sound swiftly enveloping the senses.
Soft In The Center is far more familiar and will serve as a moment of relief for stalwarts alarmed by the opener. Suitably calm and reflective in its middle, this is a solid, toe-tapping Hold Steady track, if a little at odds with Sweet Part. Weekenders continues this reacclimatisation, offering a bold chorus and sweet melodies to sew everything together. It is another, however, that on the initial spins doesn't come across as one that will fight for a place in the live set.
As we delve deeper, the stark Rock Problems fits comfortably with the more established style of last album Stay Positive, the previously covered Hurricane J is sounding more powerful, packed in as it is now near slower numbers, and Barely Breathing jumps out as an odd, jaunty number that holds a different kind of eccentricity than we're used to, even without departed keys man Franz Nicolay.
Penultimate number Our Whole Lives comes across as a growing choice cut, featuring a driving riff and a typically insidious lyric in "We're good guys, but we can't be good our whole lives". Finally, closer Slight Discomfort hits true to its name, cautiously inching along to an intermittent piano line and particularly introspective guitars. This one follows the band's tendency to close out on a pensive note, proving they haven't strayed quite as far as we may have initially suspected.
Part of the joy of journeying with The Hold Steady lies in the lyrical couplets that lie unassumingly in wait, gradually attaching themselves like limpet mines and exploding into the mind, never to be forgotten. Repeat spins should elicit just how many of these Heaven Is Whenever will deliver and it may be therein that the success or failure of the album will lie. What we can judge at this point, though, is that some new influences have been taken in and mixed to good effect with more traditionally loved elements, such as the sing-alongs and the high energy bar-rock riffs. As such, there exists more than enough evidence so far to surmise that plenty of fans will take this record into their hearts.
For some comparison, here are a couple of older tracks from the back catalog. The Swish is a prime example of the much-loved period before Finn really started to fully sing, where as Chips Ahoy! is The Hold Steady at one of their most catchy, radio-friendly moments.
Taken from the album Almost Killed Me
Taken from the album Boys & Girls In America
So how does it compare? Are you feeling the new one, or longing for the band playing one of those earlier albums? Leave a comment or hit us on Facebook for some further discussion.