Since 2017, The Hold Steady have steadily been dropping singles like hints on a treasure map, including “Entitlement Crew,” “The Stove & The Toaster,” “Star 18” and “Confusion in the Marketplace/T-Shirt Tux.” At long last, we have found the treasure at the end of the journey: Thrashing Thru The Passion.
And it is everything those hints promised it would be.
With five new songs in addition to the previously-released singles, Thrashing Thru The Passion arrives with plenty of their infectious, party-friendly brand of storytelling. Prior to the release, they gifted us with two more singles, “Denver Haircut” and “You Did Good, Kid.” The latter, held together with homecoming parade drums, provides the strongest showcase for frontman Craig Finn’s chatter-style vocals, while “Denver Haircut,” which opens the album, is all bold guitars from Finn and Steve Selvidge. “It doesn’t have to be pure, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” Finn barks on “Haircut.” Oh, but it is perfect, bright and warm, like a catch-up phone call from a long-lost friend, peppered with the hyper-specific details that make up The Hold Steady Extended Universe, including a pilot who looks like Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, a Residence Inn at the top of the exit. Not just any pilot, not just any hotel, but those very specific names to give the listener a real sense of exactly what is happening here.
Throughout the record, the band’s first since 2014’s Teeth Dreams, keyboardist Franz Nicolay makes his presence known. He left the band following 2009’s Stay Positive but returned in 2016, making this his first album in a decade. His grinning glam-rock shines on multiple tracks, perhaps most obviously on “Traditional Village,” which is further elevated by a sunny horn section. While so many Hold Steady ballads are characterized by a “small towns have problems” theme, the instrumentation on this tale of junkie waiters, creepy pastors and pedantic professors makes it an album highlight, not a rerun of previous songs.
The twangy, Southern California vibe they brought to 2018’s “Ester” is present again and strongest on “Blackout Sam,” another drink-and-drug-drenched tale like those come to expect from The Hold Steady. “He keeps waking up in parking ramps / He can never find his keys,” Finn laments over a tinny organ. It doesn’t end well for Sam, dying, presumably of an overdose, like so many other subjects of Finn’s songs—but yet, these sorts of tales never get old, each one just adds another neighbor to this crumbling fictional town that we love in spite of itself.
“Entitlement Crew” is the strongest track on Side B, which is comprised entirely of already-released singles. Complete with breezy guitars and speedy drums played soft in the mix—you’ll get a workout if you try to tap along—Finn’s sardonic lyrics are like an Arnold Palmer, his voice sort of sweet, stirred together with the bitter lyrics that make him such a brilliant songwriter. “I like the party but I hate the party people,” he laments early in “Entitlement Crew.” It’s instantly relatable.
Both “Star 18” and “The Stove and the Toaster” pay homage to cheap motels—Comfort Inns and La Quintas—and play like road songs; “Star 18” features a ballpark organ hovering underneath a Bobby Drake drum riff that recalls Chuck Berry’s “Route 66,” while the latter gives the listener a sense that Finn has wandered off into the woods, away from the rest of the band as he’s recording. There’s a disconnect between what he is sing-talking and the melody they’re all playing, but the blast of horns, it seems, brings him back for the chorus.
Overall, Thrashing Thru The Passion is musically looser than previous offerings—fewer ballads, the big rock numbers less lush and more compact—but it also makes it accessible to new listeners, who can then work their way back through albums like Heaven is Whenever or Separation Sunday.
At times, the band has had to ask their fans at their raucous shows not to throw confetti due to venue regulations. It’s become a bit of a tradition, but with the glorious effervescence that permeates Thrashing Thru The Passion, it’s going to be tempting to toss a handful of glitter wherever you are—a concert venue, a city bus or even at home in your living room.