The Hold Steady's newest album is a collection of memories born somewhere in suburban Minneapolis, of drugs, addiction, sex and religion, of Craig Finn tearing through an unforgettable segment of his life and making sense of it through notions of faith and dependency. And within this dangerously infectious rock 'n' roll set comes revelation: that they're interchangeable, that religion and addiction can fill the same void, that people need to believe in something regardless of what it is. In these songs, back on his old desolate stomping ground, hanging with his old down-and-out pals, singer/guitarist Finn finds heartache, desperation and a dire need to find purpose through faith, through feeling life, through feeling full and feeling alive, regardless of the means.
And, for Separation Sunday, this offers an infinite number of metaphors, which Finn and his witty sense of humor waste no time in getting to: "She said there's gonna come a time/ When I'm gonna have to go/ With whoever gets me the highest," Finn sighs in one ear and then the other before the album's opening track, "Hornets! Hornets!," thunders in with lunging riffs and stadium-size drums. "And he never heard that song before/ But he still got the metaphor/ He knew some people that had switched places before," Finn later yells, his words spit out, as if he knows these things too well.
Amongst a pair of slash-and-burn guitars and a fist-pumping rhythm section, Finn tells chilling stories of former drug-addict hoodrat friends afraid of love, afraid of life, born again and afraid to go back. He moves so naturally between ideas of falling hard and rising up, between getting smashed and finding God, that the moral distinction between the two, between "good" and "bad," fades and fails to matter much anymore. "Famine and death and pestilence and war/ I'm pretty sure I've heard this one before," Finn shouts on "Cattle and the Creepy Things," his words pained by the admission. "I guess I heard about original sin/ I heard the dude blamed the chick/ I heard the chick blamed the snake/ And I heard they were naked when they got busted/ And I heard things ain't been the same since."
Finn's masterful lyrics can't be ignored. And the music, stopping, starting and crashing with wrenching enthusiasm, is equally undeniable. But the way Finn understands the human condition in all its glory and contradiction is, simply, brilliant. "I saw him at the river bank," Finn tells us on "Banging Camp." "He was breaking bread and giving thanks/ With crosses made of pipes and planks/ Leaned up against the nitrous tanks/ And he said, 'Take a hit, hold your breath and tilt your head/ And when you wake up again / You'll be high as hell and born again.'
"He said, ‘I can't stand it when the banging stops, I can't stand it when the
banging stops,'" Finn remembers, as if he's run out of energy.
Throughout Separation Sunday, while classic Midwestern blue-collar rock stomps fervently in the back, Finn tells us, in careful detail, of troubled souls desperate to avoid the silence, desperate to find distraction, desperate to get high or religion or both. But in the end, Finn shrugs on "Charlemagne in Sweatpants," "It's all a sweet fleeting feeling/ You ever been caught stealing?"
Though Finn's aggressive delivery, flawed for good reason by raw sincerity, takes center stage, the Hold Steady's playing (full of fills, solos and slides) is tight, massive and all-consuming, the kind of rowdy early-'90s rock-outs that gave stage diving and mosh pits reason to exist. "I like the crowds at the really big shows/ People touching people when they don't even know you," he wails, the excitement obvious in his tone on "Hornets! Hornets!"
Separation Sunday takes you to strung-out parties, to the ER, where the nurse jokes about it "being like an after bar," to the banks of the Mississippi River ("Stevie Nix"), on a "shivering and smashed" road trip in a stolen car, to nodding off in matinees ("Multitude of Casualties"), to 1988, to being 17 or 33, to confession and "telling your congregation how a resurrection really feels" (on a track of the same name). And within each story, within every character, rising up or coming down, there's something so painfully familiar, you can't help but get emotional just listening.
Finn, who is forever smirking, moves so gracefully from hoodrats getting laid,
places to score and "druggy, ugly, bloody" parties to priests, deacons, saviors
and Catholic guilt that their correlation becomes crystal clear dependency
is human, what to depend on is individual. "Your little hoodrat friend's been
calling me again/ And I can't stand all the things that she sticks into her skin," Finn
sings contemptuously on "Your Little Hoodrat Friend." "Ball-point pens and steel
guitar strings/ She says it hurts but it's worth it/ Tiny little text etched
into her neck/ Says 'Jesus lived and died for all your sins'/ She's got blue-black
ink and it's scratched into her lower back/ Says 'Damn right he'll rise
"Yeah, damn right you'll rise again."
And it's in the way Finn moves, almost without notice, from "he'll" to "you'll" that drives it home: Believing is about the believer, rarely the believed in. His stories, his songs, are about the drug addicts, not the drugs, about the born again, not what they're born into. About using faith to flee feeling empty.
"Yeah, damn right you'll rise again." You can hear it in his voice: Finn's a believer too.