Craig Finn and Tad Kubler of The Hold Steady have maintained that they will not make the same album twice. Through their four releases, they have held up their end of the bargain.
This year we were treated to a markedly different album from the New York-based group. 2008’s Stay Positive has diverged sonically from 2006’s guitar driven Boys and Girls in America, as this year’s effort has employed everything from glockenspiel to harpsichord. But what really sets the lovingly dubbed “World’s Best Bar Band,” apart is an instrument more unique than anything being featured in a band currently: Craig Finn’s voice singing Craig Finn’s lyrics. Finn has an uncanny ability to make his version of non-singing interesting by energetically reciting his dense and oft-vivid lyrics. He is able to so adeptly convey the situation or characterize the person in question that headphones are almost required to best experience his virtuosity. Nowhere is this best highlighted than THS’s second album Separation Sunday.
Separation Sunday is a concept album, but like all great concept albums you do not have to listen to it in the stringent order of beginning to end; at least not until after the first
go-round. The album is loosely chronicling the adventures of three partiers: Hallelujah (Holly), Gideon, and Charlemagne. The songs all make mention of each character in some fashion and culminate with the miraculous “resurrection” of Holly. (If you have picked up on a Catholic theme, you have certainly been paying attention; this motif is visited throughout the album)
“Hornets! Hornets!” opens the album with our first glimpse of Holly. Though she is not mentioned by name, her first words give the audience an indication of what kind of woman Holly is: “She said, there is gonna come a time / when I’m gonna have to go / with whoever is going to get me the highest.” You believe her and you think to yourself, well, sure, okay, I guess I can get behind that decision, all the while humming along.
The second track, “Cattle and The Creeping Things” ups the ante as it romps through the bible with a matter-of-fact tone. Age old lessons (set to rock music) are applied to present times and it appears that we are in the midst of the same cycle as thousands of years previous. This collection of musings on the current state of affairs and their connection to the biblical lessons of yore would be easy for me to examine line by line, but I will offer this link instead.
The foot-tapping “Banging Camp” starts with an alternating left channel/right channel guitar riff and goes on to offer insight on one means of becoming ‘born again’. This scientific and sacred ceremony involves recreational use of nitrous followed closely by having one’s head dunked in water. “When you wake up / you’ll be high as hell and born again.” The middle of the album was made for rockers as Tad is able to showcase his chops, most notably on the rollicking “Charlemagne in Sweatpants” and Thin Lizzy-tinged “Stevie Nix”. These hard-rocking guitar tracks, like all THS songs, are not without a heavy dose of Finn’s wordplay. Here, in the heart of the album, Holly’s story starts to unfold piece by piece but there is no compass rose to make sense of the clues gleaned from each track.
Finally, with the album-closing “How a Resurrection Really Feels” we are able to make sense of Hallelujah’s saga. The truth comes out that Holly has been having these misadventures across the nation while most of those close to her have feared her dead. “We wrote her name in magic marks / on stop signs and subway cars / they got a mural up on east 13th / saying ‘Hallelujah Rest In Peace’”. Hallelujah wanders back home and limps through the doors of the church during the Easter service much to everyone’s surprise and amazement; well everyone except Finn: “Holly was a hoodrat / Now you finally know that / She’s been disappearing for years / today she finally came back.”
Separation Sunday is a triumph of straight-ahead rock music tastefully blended with masterful storytelling yielding raucous results. The storyline is secondary and can only truly be appreciated after multiple spins. The instrumentation will draw you in initially, and once you can decipher Finn’s mouthful of lyrics good luck taking THS out of heavy rotation.