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Boozed up ballads with brains

The opening to “Stuck Between Stations,” the first track on The Hold Steady’s latest album Boys and Girls in America, sounds like it could have been pulled from any of a number of ’80s classic rock songs. However, any similarities to the classic rock genre end when the lyrics begin.

The first line references Jack Kerouac’s famous character Sal Paradise, and as the song progresses, poet John Berryman is mentioned. “There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly / but he didn’t so he died.” Berryman committed suicide in 1972 by jumping from the Washington Street Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

This brief passage in the beginning of the album serves to define the narrow scope that the rest of Boys and Girls in America focuses on; namely youth, drugs, sex, love and alcohol. These base themes could have easily been mishandled, but The Hold Steady manages to avoid being tasteless or simple and instead produce an album that is fun and freewheeling but at the same time smart enough to work.

The majority of the songs on Boys and Girls in America sound like loud party rock ballads backed up with sweeping piano riffs and jittery classic rock guitar soloing. Vocalist Craig Finn’s voice is slurred enough to make it seem like he might have thrown back a couple before he started belting out lyrics. The band does slow down on a couple of tracks, and key verses cause these songs to stand out as poignant insightful passages in an otherwise raucous testament to wild youth and wilder parties.

“First Night” is the first slow track on the album. The song tells the story of a girl’s melancholy transformation from fearlessness to vulnerability. Lyrics such as “Holly’s not invincible / In fact she’s in the hospital / Not far from the bar where we met / on that first night” serve to effectively illustrate the narrative. The complementary acoustic guitar, violin and piano effectively round out the mood of the song.

The album gets fun and loud again with “Party Pit,” a quick reflection on how people’s attitudes change after a long hiatus.

“Massive Nights” defines the idealism and invincibility of youthful party culture. “Everyone was funny and everyone was pretty / everyone was coming towards the center of the city / the dance floor was crowded the bathrooms were worse / we kissed in your car and drank from your purse.” But as with many of the other songs on the album, bulletproof grandeur is tempered with doses of sad reality. “She had the gun in her mouth / she was shooting up at her dreams / when the chaperone said that / we’d been crowned / the king and the queen.”

“Citrus” and “Chillout Tent” are two other notable tracks on the album. The lyrical sensibilities of the band stand out, especially in “Citrus” when Finn sadly slurs, “I see Judas in the hard eyes of the boys working the corners / I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers.”

Boys and Girls in America is short but focused. It effectively conveys the desperation and sadness of being young and careless without being overbearing. It is smart without being pretentious and it is fun and playful without being saccharine. The Hold Steady warms you up like a shot of whiskey – but like that shot, the band softens the hard edges of reality and waits for the buzz to dissipate before the bad news sets in.