The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams | Album Review | By Volume

I knew we'd never write. somehow that seemed alright. This counts as calling three years out. The Wrens - 13 Months in 6 Minutes

The Hold Steady

Teeth Dreams

“The kid that went down isn’t dead, he just can’t find his phone.”

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Author: on March 26, 2014
Washington Square
March 25, 2014

2010 feels like another lifetime, yet so much remains stagnant. We have the same president, the same wars, the same oppressions. We’re still trying not to think about the same exes. We’re still talking about Miley Cyrus. Sure, we tried kale — maybe we liked it, maybe we didn’t. We switched to a credit union and spent fifteen minutes researching how to make our cars run on leftover grease from fast food restaurants. We’ve tried to release ourselves, but this past half decade has shuddered with a collective ennui expressed in Twitter hashtags and muttered bitching about complicated Starbucks orders.

Teeth Dreams captures the weariness and wariness that have settled thick on the American consciousness in the five years since The Hold Steady’s last release. In single “Spinners”, Craig Finn sings about “flat champagne and inbound trains / soft hands and phantom pains.” But he tells us, too, that “heartbreak hurts but you can dance it off.” Under classic rock guitars and Finn’s simultaneously bored and earnest voice, The Hold Steady invites us to dance off the dust.

Teeth Dreams departs from more recent Hold Steady records and harkens back to the style of 2004’s Separation Sunday. “Runner’s High”, for example, is a roiling rock song that sounds, musically and lyrically, like a lost track from that album — but I’m not complaining about a return to the style of their best record. Where 2010’s Heaven is Whenever had an element of theater and drama, Teeth Dreams feels grounded, even when it edges on losing control. It subs soaring guitars and piano for solid, grungy guitar noise that propels you from song to song along a furious, heart thumping route. This album feels expansive, exploring massive sonic landscapes without falling into the trap of too much space that plagued Heaven.

As tired as the Bruce Springsteen, Husker Dü, good ol’boy rock and roll comparisons are, that’s what The Hold Steady do, and they do it extremely well. I get that some people hate The Hold Steady for their telling of typical white indie rocker dude stories. If you do not like The Hold Steady, this album will not be the one to turn you. These songs are rooted in nostalgia, storytelling, and banality. They feel comfortable but not too safe. Tracks like “On With The Business” and “Almost Everything” demonstrate a matured songwriting style. The overall result sounds like garage rock all grown up — this is the band your best friend in 10th grade school dreamed his band would turn into.

“Big Cig” is classic Hold Steady, all grungy guitar noise and spat out lyrics that illustrate a character: a beautiful, fucked up girl, who is using Finn for sex and validation, not that he minds. I wonder if this girl and Holly are friends, stumbling home together, eyeliner smeared and just happy enough to go out again tomorrow night. But the storytelling here is less explicit — our characters don’t get names, so they can be anyone, they can be us. Finn has said this is intentional, and it all feels very 2014, in the way that the near-rock opera storytelling of Separation Sunday felt very 2004, coming as it did on the heels of American Idiot’s cultural explosion. The stories have abandoned the Catholic Church and Minneapolis as direct reference points, too, but Teeth Dreams still makes perfect sense in the context of the stories Finn has always told. It’s 2014, and maybe we’re growing bored of talking about our childhood religion and our hometown.

The self-referential lyrics remain, though sparsely — “The Waffle House waitress asked us if we were Pink Floyd”, Finn sings on “Almost Everything” — because if they’re going to write about banality, they must start with their own. But they’ll remind us of ours, too — “The kid that went down isn’t dead, he just can’t find his phone” — and here we were, thinking the medics lined up meant something exciting happened. But we don’t have to remain trapped in that banality. In an album named for a phenomenon associated with a lack of sex, anxiety, insecurity and the fear of growing older, there is an optimism, an anticipation of spring. The record closes with the cavernous, beautiful “Oaks”, in which we are compelled to hope. “Keep the speed steady / Hold the wheel straight / I swear I feel each little sway”, Finn sings as he drives us along that mountain road. “Our minds are the windows / Our bodies are screens / We scratch and we scrape and we dream.” The frost is thawing. wars are ending and beginning. In your little corner of the universe, it is okay to dream. It might even be time for a change.

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