The Hold Steady gives us a solid but minor effort with Heaven is Whenever

Oh Franz Nicolay, how I miss you. Through all of The Hold Steady’s raucous bar rock, you were the calming influence, often breaking in with your keyboard halfway through songs to take down the intensity, if only for a few moments. And now we have Heaven is Whenever, the band’s first album without your influence. I don’t know, man. It’s pretty good. But it’s missing something.

Because with such a scaled back emphasis on keyboards — they’re still hanging around, but mostly in the periphery now — the band attempts to try a few new things, to its credit. A clarinet surfaces on “Barely Breathing;” there’s a cinematic string section on the last track, “A Slight Discomfort;” opener “The Sweet Part of the City” is a weird, acoustic slide guitar-based track. It’s mostly weird because it’s not a positive jam, but also because it begins the album on such an off-kilter note.

So some of these experiments work, and some don’t. Hell, some songs don’t work at all, which is rare for The Hold Steady. The strange timing and lyrics of “The Smidge” (“We used to lie to each other about using computers”) are hard to connect with, for instance, and the slow chorus of “Soft in the Center” sabotages the high-energy verses.

But the album grows. The worst songs become tolerable after a while, or at least bridges between the fantastic cuts, like the newest THS anthems, “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J.” Craig Finn’s lyrics aren’t as outwardly amazing as normal — all his famed characters are gone, at least by name — but there still are a few killer lines.

And that’s pretty much the theme of Heaven is Whenever. It tries hard to succeed on the level of Separation Sunday or Boys and Girls in America, but doesn’t quite get there. The lineup is different; the band has been forced to re-sculpt its sound to varied effectiveness. This album isn’t perfect, but it’s transitional. By the time the next one hits, Finn and company will be fully back in their groove.

The Hold Steady – “The Weekenders” [MP3]

The Hold Steady – “Barely Breathing” [MP3]

Purchase Heaven is Whenever

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