The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams


Fact:  All of your heroes will grow old and die.

It’s a depressing thought.  It’s an especially poignant one in a year like 2014, when 1994 is officially twenty years gone and most of the bands that were The Scene in that legendary year are now long gone by the wayside, broken up for good or relegated to the Gen X version of the oldies circuit. Even bands that are half that age – a decade old now – are in a slow state of decline.  Interpol’s glory days are now ten years behind them; Animal Collective has hit their peak and are now sitting behind their first real mediocre album.  Modest Mouse hasn’t been heard from in five years.  The world moves on, and the heroes of your youth and young adulthood with them.

Enter Teeth Dreams, the sixth studio album from Brooklyn-by-way-of-Minneapolis rock revivalists The Hold Steady.  The band recently passed their own ten-year milestone with a legacy of with and observation.  Singer Craig Finn’s lyrics betray the heart of a novelist; his characters were always deeply sketched, persuasively described pieces of the Great Wasted American Puzzle.  Their first four albums were masterpieces of storytelling that were as deeply in debt to Husker Du and the Replacements as they were to more traditionally “classic” rock and roll.  Since 2010, however, the band has been in a slow period of transition.  Keyboard and moustache wizard Franz Nicolay left the band after 2008’s Stay Positive, claiming that there wasn’t anything further left to say that could be better than that album.  The last four years have proved him uncomfortably right – Heaven Is Whenever and Teeth Dreams are albums that seem to circle around the same ideas but with diminished results.

On Separation Sunday, the band’s 2005 high point, you had a feeling that you were walking the sketchy backstreets of an American city (typically Minneapolis) with real characters that you knew intimately.  The detail was there – this was an ambitious novel about a local scene and the possibilities of resurrection and revival that ran through it.  By contrast, Teeth Dreams is a lot stingier with the details.  The city could be any city.  The characters could be any characters.  Finn widens his scope to include new types – like on “Big Cig” – and it succeeds, but tracks like “Runner’s High” draw out the same old ideas about the dangers of being young and on drugs and now, eleven years removed from Almost Killed Me, they are starting to get tired.  This may sound like a bit of a drag, and for a longtime fan it is, but if I take off the fan-hat for a minute it’s fairly obvious that it’s still a better set of songs than most modern mainstream Alt Nation bands can muster up.  The one-two punch of “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and “Spinners” is classic, and weights the album heavily towards its beginning.  “The Ambassador” is a ballad as only the Hold Steady can accomplish it, moving the scene to Michigan for greater effect.  “On With The Business” wakes up with that American sadness (and you can feel that sadness, even if you can’t quite articulate it in less than 100,000 words) and the closer “Oaks” is a worthy addition to the canon of Epic Hold Steady Closers.  So what’s the problem, you ask?

The problem is that it’s a good album, not a great one.  The band is capable of great things – Great American Things – and having to acknowledge that the band is sitting on two merely good albums is an uncomfortable reminder of mortality.  Heroes get old, they lose their touch, they eventually fall off completely.  I don’t want to be around for The Hold Steady’s Never Say Die, or In Through The Out Door, or Human Touch.  In a way, I suppose, it would be like dealing with New Wave for a third time.

Grade:  B

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