Boiled down to its beery, bleary essence, the Hold Steady is all about barfly catharsis, end-credit music for the broken Bud man. Six years after its inception, the Brooklyn quartet still flaunts its love for Born to Run, bad girls and songs that unspool like tragicomic Raymond Carver shorts. They are populists at the tap.
The irony, however, is that Joe Six-Pack has never heard of the Hold Steady. Led by the nerdy, bespectacled Craig Finn, the alt-rockers are enjoyed by an elite indie-loving audience, people who crave the idea of slumming in a dive bar — until it's time to drive home in their Prius.
Perhaps that's why new album Heaven Is Whenever, arriving in stores this Tuesday, is the band's most accessible to date — or at least the one most resembling a radio dial circa 1973. The hooks are sharper; guitars buzz like they're warming up for a rendition of Edgar Winter's Frankenstein; and each cut in the 10-pack dutifully crescendoes to a bittersweet hungover revelation.
If the Hold Steady doesn't attract a wider demographic, it's not for a lack of trying.
Finn loves his domestic suds, but he isn't so buzzed that he hasn't realized his nasally quick-fire patter and hyper-hipsterism are starting to grate. So Heaven Is Whenever is stuffed with all sorts of warm departures, from angelic choirs to klezmer swing to a bottom's-up punk spirit. The clever wordplay could still make the New Yorker fiction page, but Finn often delivers it without his pinched bite.
A hard Stonesian shuffle morphs into a proggy synth-and-guitar duet on The Smidge; for all the Boss in the tape deck, the Hold Steady knows its Boston, too. The kudzu beauty of The Sweet Part of the City (sample ripe lyric: "St. Theresa showed up wearing see through / It was standard issue") is laced with Tom Petty's Southern accents; it might be the loveliest thing the group has recorded.
The Weekenders, with its puckish opening line — "There was that whole weird thing with the horses" — has the prickly, life-is-now feel of Achtung-vintage U2. More irony: The Hold Steady is a postmodern bar band that now longs to rock your local arena.
For all the diversions, the group eventually comes back to sating its Inner Bruce — albeit Springsteen with a degree at MIT. On the penultimate Our Whole Lives, with its driving guitars, charging pianos and Finn spitting words with a whiny snarl, the Hold Steady stars at an egghead mixer, explaining what it was like to mix with the hoi polloi: "We're good guys, but we can't be good every night."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.