October 16, 2021

The Hold Steady – “Open Door Policy” – fulfilling all their promise so far

THIRTY TIGERS 19th Feb, 2021

I’m going to swim upstream and say that The Hold Steady have been getting better. Critical acclaim seems to have reduced since the early releases but the new six piece band that feature on this and the previous album are cooking nicely and finally meshing more with the influences they talk about (like The Band, Husker Du and other people who know their way around a hook). Open Door Policy is actually quite an old album, being recorded at the end of 2019 and only now seeing the light of day. Maybe they were waiting till they could do a promotional tour and now, even a year later, it seems this is going to have to be a short series of livestreams.

Taking it through track by track for a look at the ingredients and recipe reveals an excellent blend of new wave, classic American rock and gonzo storytelling. The Feelers has their great story-telling vibe but the icing on the cake is the late seventies New Wave riff that pops in as the music kicks in and the notes of musical colour, like the guitar work a couple of minutes in. It sums up the album – all the usual vivid scenes, stories, word pictures – but with a new strength to the music. When they first got known, people used to talk about the Springsteen influences, mostly because of the tales of mixed up street life, as per the first couple of Springsteen albums but the full power of the band wasn’t there. By now, many years in, Craig Finn’s tales have his own flavour and the music finally sounds like a polished rock machine. Spices sees a punchy and powerful chorus swing by and Lanyards is a catchy picture of gig life, wristbands and post-gig crashouts with a weird girl.

Family Farm is the standout; tense and full of horn-led breakouts, an account of admission to a mental hospital, getting to know the wardens and insights into personal psychology. In Unpleasant Breakfast, which follows, the stay continues and we discuss anti-psychosis pills and other patients. The ‘I Am The Walrus’ ‘whooos’ and the banging piano stick in the memory. The album just keeps getting musically stronger, with The Prior Procedure featuring more of the New Wave choppiness, alongside some tasty singing guitar leads.

Magdalena is thoroughly excellent, returning to music as a theme with friends and fans switching allegiances and frustrating the narrator. Of course, as with so many, there is a sudden switch to a relationship, moving house and all sorts of sideways observations. Hanover Camera is a worthy closer and wanders around following a band (again). I’d guess Craig Finn is as much a fan as a singer. That ability to see himself inside the head of almost anyone else makes this a bit of a head-trip and a micro-story masterclass.

A spicy blend of word pictures amid a strong stew of big music sees this served up hot and steaming.