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Music / The Hold Steady

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L-R: Bobby Drake, Galen Polivka, Craig Finn, Tad Kubler, Franz Nicolay

"Artistically, I have always been really interested in the hangover; not just the celebration and the confetti, but also the puke in the gutter."
Craig Finn


The Hold Steady is a highly-acclaimed 21st-century bar-rock band known for the complex and intertextual lyrical mythology woven throughout their albums, following the adventures of an (occasionally) apostate streetrat, a quasi-Rastafari delinquent, a frequently precognitive psychic and a ne'er-do-well pimp. Songs are typically told through the eyes of various, mostly hedonistic narrators, and built over old-school epic riffs.

After the breakup of Craig Finn and Tad Kubler's previous band, Lifter Puller, the two went on and formed The Hold Steady in 2004 with more variable and therefore much more broad lyrical influence (cited by Finn as ranging from John Darnielle to Jay-Z). While not every one of their albums is connected to their iconic Myth Arc, they are connected thematically through drugs, parties, religious allusions, toxic relationships, and the occasional redemption. Craig serves as the band's leading vocalist and Kubler as lead guitar and backup vocals. Their current lineup also includes Galen Polivka on bass guitar, Bobby Drake on drums, and Steve Selvidge on guitar.

In 2016, The Hold Steady celebrated the tenth anniversary of their album Boys and Girls in America with a series of concerts featuring Franz Nicolay, their core keyboardist who left the band back in 2010. Nicolay returned full-time for Thrashing Thru The Passion, making the band a six-piece for the first time.

It's also worth noting that Finn has dabbled in solo work during some of the band's hiatuses. His first album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, was released in 2012 and his second, Faith in the Future, in 2015.


Studio Albums

  • Almost Killed Me (2004)
  • Separation Sunday (2005)
  • Boys and Girls in America (2006)
  • Stay Positive (2008)
  • Heaven Is Whenever (2010)
  • Teeth Dreams (2014)
  • Thrashing Thru the Passion (2019)
  • Open Door Policy (2021)
  • The Price of Progress (2023)

Live Albums

  • A Positive Rage (2009)

The Hold Steady provides examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Finn uses alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme as much as regular rhyme.
  • Age-Progression Song
  • Anachronic Order: The Myth Arc. The songs on each album are organized so that they flow together musically and the actual plot is slowly and cryptically developed. Each song isn't necessarily taking place directly after the one before it, and the albums are also out of chronological order. The basic chronology is Almost Killed Me, which is introduction songs for most of the main characters, then Separation Sunday, which sketches out the entire Myth Arc to the Grand Finale, "How a Resurrection Really Feels". Various other songs elaborate on particular moments, such as Holly's sojourn in Hollywood or Charlemagne's relationship with the psychic Sapphire. Stay Positive is an entire concept album based around the pivotal event where Holly betrays Charlemagne and Gideon tries to kill him.
  • Audience Participation Song: Craig Finn is a vocal believer in these, and many songs have singalong choruses.
  • BSoD Song: "Crucifixion Cruise".
  • Bungled Suicide: "Teenage Liberation" describes an instance like this.
    "He took one good swipe at his wrist, but he missed so he lived"
  • Call-Back: Very often.
  • Cliffhanger: The last we hear of Charlemagne on Stay Positive is that he's "hiding from the gentlemen/with the same tattoos as Gideon."
  • Continuity Nod: One of the only bands with its own page.
  • Concept Album: Most notably Separation Sunday. Stay Positive is loosely based around a murder mystery; the others are more thematic in concept.
  • Cover Version: Their first single was backed with Led Zeppelin's "Hey Hey What Can I Do?" They have also covered Dylan and Springsteen, and released Rags, a cover EP.
  • Darker and Edgier: In her first appearance ("Chips Ahoy!") Sapphire the psychic is using her power to win bets. When she reappears, it's in the haunting, creepy "Both Crosses," in which she's tormented by visions of the murder from "One for the Cutters."
  • Drugs Are Bad: Reconstructed. Craig Finn states that he likes to write honestly about his subject material, so there's never really any pushing of an Aesop. This means that while songs like "Massive Nights" or "Most People Are DJs" reflect the momentary joys of substance abuse, they're balanced by more melancholy and downright aggressive tracks like "Lord, I'm Discouraged" or "Hot Soft Light."
  • Epic Rocking: "Constructive Summer" and "Slapped Actress", which open and close Stay Positive. They also often close concerts with long renditions of "Most People Are DJs" or "How a Resurrection Really Feels".
  • Girl on Girl Is Hot: Holly is mentioned to have been kissed by another girl in "Barfruit Blues."
  • Hakuna Matata: "Constructive Summer."
  • Hookers and Blow: The protagonists all get wrapped up in the drug trade and sex work at various points, as both buyers and sellers.
  • Horrible Hollywood: In the earlier albums, Holly and Mary spend some time in California hoping to make it as actresses, but end up making porn instead. The more recent albums also feature (apparently) standalone songs like "A Snake in the Shower" and "Lanyards".
  • "I Am" Song: "Chips Ahoy!" establishes the character of the psychic.
  • I Lied: A pretty notable example comes from "Knuckles."
    "The last guy didn't really die; I just lied
    And the first four didn't really die; I just lied"
  • Jigsaw Puzzle Plot: The Myth Arc. Almost Killed Me is the beginning and scene-setting. Separation Sunday outlines the larger Myth Arc all the way to "How a Resurrection Really Feels", which is obviously the Grand Finale (being about Holly's return and spiritual rebirth). Stay Positive focuses on the pivotal moment where Charlemagne is involved in a murder attempt on Gideon. Songs from all the later albums seem to fit back into that larger arc, showing various episodes along the way.
  • Large Ham: Craig Finn on stage.
  • Lighter and Softer: Than Lifter Puller, the original band Craig and Tad were in.
  • Love Confession: From "How A Resurrection Really Feels":
    "I was all wrapped up in some video booth when I heard her say 'I love you, too' "
  • Magical Realism: The Myth Arc is mostly about the highs and lows of the relationships between Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon, through parties, drug busts, religious conversions and at least one attempted murder. But on the side there's also Sapphire, who can see the future and makes money by betting on horses she knows will win.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Kids on the west coast apparently "screwin' in the surf" according to "Certain Songs."
  • Meaningful Name: Fitting that a girl who turns to drugs and sex before being symbolically resurrected is named "Hallelujah." If "Stevie Nix" is anything to go by, her age is meaningful, too, in that she returns from her hedonistic lifestyle the same age that Jesus was crucified— 33 years old.
  • Metaphorgotten: "Multitude of Casualties": "She drove it like she stole it/And she stole it fast and with a multitude of casualties."
  • Motor Mouth: Craig Finn can spew rough-but-gorgeous prose-poetry in a fairly fast fashion; the many internal rhymes and consonantal musicality intensifies it, though, often making it sound as if he's tripping over his own words.
  • Mundane Utility: Sapphire and Charlemagne use her precognition to make money betting on horse races.
  • Murder Ballad: The story arc of Stay Positive.
  • Myth Arc: Almost Killed Me introduces Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne, three people caught in the scene of parties, drugs, and gang violence. Separation Sunday takes the story further in depth, and gives Holly a metaphorical resurrection by the end. Subsequent albums describe episodes in-between Holly's fall and redemption and introduce Sapphire into the mix. Stay Positive has its own murder mystery arc; whether or not it ties into Holly's is open to interpretation, but it seems to be about Gideon almost killing Charlemagne.
  • Paranormal Gambling Advantage: "Chips Ahoy!" is written from the POV of the concerned boyfriend of a girl who uses her psychic powers to pick winning horses. The song was partly inspired by "The Rocking-Horse Winner" and the title is the name of one of the horses.
  • Reading the Stage Directions Out Loud: "Milkcrate Mosh" features the lyrics "nervous cough" three times in a row.
  • Rock-Star Song: "Rock Problems" and "Touchless".
  • Satellite Character: The recurring character Mary mostly exists as a viewpoint character for songs about Holly, and gets very little characterisation of her own after the first album.
  • Shout-Out: Lots. Referencing poets, books, old and current bands, and lines and characters from their own songs and others', often in the same song, is standard.
    • Northern Irish poet Colin Dardis sometimes uses the phrase 'hold steady' or a variation of it in his poems as a shout out to the band.
    • "Certain Songs" talks about how certain songs become so ingrained into our culture, citing Billy Joel as an example.
    • Both Youth of Today and 7 Seconds are mentioned at the beginning of "Stay Positive".
  • Special Guest: The guest vocals on "Chillout Tent" from Boys And Girls In America? Dave Pirner.
  • The Song Before the Storm - "Joke About Jamaica" is a soft, nostalgic ballad just before the climactic "Slapped Actress."
  • Title Drop: In the very first track of the very first album.
    "And I got bored when I didn't have a band/So I started a band, man/We're gonna start it with a positive jam/Hold Steady"
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: If you want to pick up all the references. The non-linear narrative of Separation Sunday, for example, is best appreciated with in-depth knowledge of both Biblical mythology and Irish-American Catholic heritage. It also helps if you know your way around the Twin Cities.
  • Vocal Evolution: Originally Craig Finn "sang" in a very rough-hewn, sing-speaking Motormouth manner. With each album he graduated more towards more traditional singing, and between Stay Positive and Heaven Is Whenever he actually took formal singing lessons, which he demonstrated on his solo albums and Teeth Dreams.
  • Watch It Stoned: The very beginning of "Hot Fries":
    All your favorite movies— they ain't that funny unless you're high