Open Door Policy
Released February 19th, 2021 on Positive Jam/Thirty Tigers
The band’s eighth album, Open Door Policy, was recorded in the last half of 2019 but a lot of the themes – the insidious creep of technology, the struggle with mental health, the trap of consumerism, and the potential of escape through fandom and the scene – just hit different now, in Year 2 of the Plague. In a way it’s quite difficult to listen to a Hold Steady record in lockdown; the band writes songs about the sacred and profane things that happen when we get together and when we can’t get together it gets difficult to remember what that feeling is like. “She said I’m glad to see you’re still in a bar band, baby / I said it’s great to see you’re still in the bars,” is a line frontman Craig Finn wrote scant years after 9/11 and it sometimes seems like the whole ethos of the band has been just that: glad to be surviving, glad to still be playing in a band, glad there are people who want to see them play. Open Door Policy finds them slowing down a little without sacrificing any of the cutting, working-class lyricism that underlined their older, more punk-inflected material.
A track like “Heavy Covenant” would have, ten years ago, been a more fist-in-the-air type of song; in 2021 it’s more of a stomp, one that still has the core of youth embedded in it but simultaneously aware that dancing all night while soaking up liquor is a younger person’s game. Same goes for “Spices”, which would have been a “Chips Ahoy” type rocker in a past life but is now a moody, tense thriller of a track that bursts into life just as Finn shouts his protagonist’s drink order (“Vanilla vodka and a Diet Dr. Pepper”, itself a complicated tension between youth and the vagaries of age). A song like “Family Farm” drags out the ghosts of the past but now the past is a novelty in a band that has decided, finally, to evolve their sound out of the doldrums of the early 2010s. They’ve figured out how to use their six-piece lineup to their advantage, with the horns taking on a more important role at times and Nicolay bringing out some rather interesting synth pulses to complement his galloping piano runs. “Unpleasant Breakfast” shows off their willingness to experiment with their sound, adding some electronic influences into the mix; “The Feelers” and the closer “Hanover Camera” delve further into their roots, with the latter riding a breezy golden era Fleetwood Mac-type bassline into the sunset. The net effect of Open Door Policy is that the band is capable of aging gracefully; this is not something that was a sure thing, back in those heady scene days of Boys And Girls In America.
Catch up with the band in my newly updated Guide.