Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Case Study: The Importance of Lyrics

A friend texted me the other day, and I’m paraphrasing: “I wonder if the Hold Steady would suck without their lyrics.”

I haven’t spoken to him to clarify what he meant by this, partly because making the argument more precise would keep me from speculating about it here, and I’ve felt somewhat desperate for material the last few days.

I’ll deal with the argument he’s less likely making first. If Craig Finn didn’t write great lyrics, he’d be in trouble. He has plenty of geeky charisma, so he can sell things, but he’s not a singer. He’s a shouter. If he were shouting the lyrics of, say, Def Leppard, I don’t think he’d have much of an audience.

I guess the more serious question concerns the band’s music. On the first couple of records, the music doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it aside from conviction. There’s an unimaginative kind of chugging going on behind some songs, like “Hornets! Hornets!” or the first half of “Stevie Nix.” But the latter isn’t just a good example of the lyrics being more important (“you came into the ER / drinking gin from a jam jar / and the nurses making jokes about the ER being like an after bar” and the ur-rock lyrics “lord, to be seventeen forever”), its second half is an example of the more subtle music that, I think, the band started using to increasingly good effect.

The gentle opening of “First Night” on Boys and Girls in America (still my favorite record of theirs) could be used by Bruce Hornsby, which some might see as an insult. I don’t mean it that way, even though I'm hardly a devoted Hornsby fan. (I know I’ve mentioned this before, a long time ago, but the best idea for a cover I’ve heard in years remains my friend S.D.’s suggestion that the Hold Steady cover Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.” That’s genius. Though how the band fares with covers is an open question. I like their version of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” once it starts kicking up dust, but their version of Springsteen’s admittedly unimprovable “Atlantic City” is best left undiscussed.) Anyway, the Hornsby reference makes me realize something: There are undoubtedly fans who think the band’s first two records are far better than the slightly softer dynamics of the stuff since. That’s fine, but I think Finn’s brutish affect has to be offset by something, and the keyboards and harmonicas and more melodic numbers are completely OK with me.

All that said, the musical pleasures in even the band’s best numbers tend to be guilty ones (think "The Boys Are Back in Town," for one), and sure, those always benefit from strong vocals, strong lyrics, or both. And Finn’s great at various forms, from the quick character sketch (“She looks shallow but she’s neck-deep in the steamy dreams of the guys along the harbor bars”) to the aphoristic (“started recreational / ended kinda medical”). He’s also funny (“Chillout Tent”) and solemn (“Citrus”), and often both simultaneously, which is no mean trick. If the question is, would the Hold Steady be a less serious band without their lyrics, I think the answer to that is an obvious, even resounding yes. But with the right voice at the front, and some semblance of passable lyrics, I think the friend mentioned above and I would still listen to them with the windows down.


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