Well… one of best kept secrets in rock-n-roll is about to blow up into the big time. As I was driving in to work this morning I heard a snippet of The Hold Steady‘s first single off their latest CD “Stay Positive” – “Sequestered in Memphis” – and thought I was listening to KEXP. When I looked at the tuner in my car, I saw… to my horror… that the song was playing on (gulp) NPR’s “All Things Considered”! As the song moved from the refrain of the song, Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep continued his interview with Craig Finn (lead singer for the band) which can be found here.
Granted, I am happy for Craig Finn and company to get the exposure they rightly deserve as one of the best bands in America at present and I hope the sales of “Stay Positive” rocket through the roof. However, as with most things we hold dear in life, the more people discover a secret, the less powerful it is. Think of that favorite cafe you go to when you need some space to think (yes… I have mine… and it is on First Hill somewhere…) Think of that shoebox you kept under bed as a kid filled with the treasures (notes from camp, green army men you melted with a magnifying glass at a best friend’s house, baseball cards, a crumpled picture of Kristy McNichol from some forgotten ABC Afterschool Special, etc) you never wanted your siblings or parents to find. There are some bands that hold that place as well. U2 was like that in the early 80’s for me. When Christian kids “got serious” about their faith in those days, they abandoned all music expect that sanctioned by the CCM machine (burn the Beatle’s albums, buy the Amy Grant). However, I got more out of U2’s “War” – and still do – than I ever did from Petra or Whiteheart.
I think The Hold Steady will ‘hold’ such a place for another generation. Perhaps they won’t move on to fill stadiums and re-brand African poverty like Bono and the boys have done, but Craig Finn’s lyrics and the band’s bar-busting songcraft has certainly added a much needed element to Christian engagement with the world that is sorely missing from a majority of CCM pabulum in three big ways: namely honesty, humanity and that God is found for many people in the everyday more often than in the transcendent.
As Craig Finn states in relation to the band’ 2005 album Separation Sunday, much of their music is about real people finding real redemption. “I guess a prodigal-daughter story,” Finn states in his interview on NPR’s “All Thing’s Considered” “It [Separation Sunday] is about a girl who grew up in a religious background and goes off to try to find something bigger, better, or something she’s missing. And [she] has a lot of experiences and ends up coming back, not only to her family and to her town, but to her church.”
This “coming back” story that weaves its way through the CD is a gritty account of a girl named Holly (“Her parents named her Hallelujah/the kids all called her Holly”) who lives the life of disappointment and heartbreak many people in middle class America live out every day but rarely admit to – drugs on the sidetable at bedtime, drinking to get slightly drunk and forget the disappointments of their life, relationships that are merely encounters through sex without love. What makes Finn’s Holly such an important voice for the church today is that she can actually teach us something if the church would listen. For many CCM artists, redemption results in the ability to conform within our consumer culture rather than transform it – to be redeemed is in the mode of redeeming a coupon clipped from the newspaper – give up something only to buy something else. For Finn, it is not the type of coupon clipping painted out in the connect-the-dots redemption stories oft heard in CCM songs by the third verse. In the closing song of Separation Sunday, the aptly titled “How a Resurrection Really Feels”, Finn’s prodigal-daughter stumbles into an on-going church service:
If she scared you then she’s sorry.
she’s been stranded at these parties.
these parties they start lovely
but they get druggy and they get ugly
and they get bloody.The priest just kinda laughed. The deacon caught a draft.
She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass.
She was limping left on broken heels.
When she said “Father, can I tell your congregation how a Resurrection really feels?
Where most CCM is only understood and therefore purchased by devoted Christians, Finn’s real life redemption strips away the abstractions and makes redemption something real people want and can experience and still remain real people. On their new album “Stay Positive”, the band pens one of the more horrific songs of students away at college I have ever heard – “One for the Cutters.” For a generation that saw the 1979 indie film Breaking Away, the image of University of Indiana and the town of Bloomington is still alive with a town divided between “cutters” (the ‘townies’ whose families cut the limestone from the surrounding quarries) and the college kids who view them from a life apart amidst their frat houses and golden futures. Finn reimagines this clash of cultures in Bloomington with a young college student who gets involved with a “cutter” and with one bad move changes her life forever. The question posed by Finn at the end of this tale will cause cell phones to ring at midnight in dorms across the country:
Mom, do you know where your girl is? Sophomore accomplice in a turtleneck sweater… Dad, do you know where your kids are? Sniffing on crystal in cute little cars.. It’s a cute little town, boutiques and cafes.
Her friends all seemed nice, she was getting good grades,
but when she came home for Christmas, she just seemed distant and different.
That “distant and different” is ignored by many in hopes that we can just “move on.” Moving on isn’t something The Hold Steady offers. As real people, we all live with the scars of our past. Where much of CCM is more concerned with getting past the brokenness and into the light, Finn does the Gospel thing instead by shining a light on the brokenness and sits there for a while with us. It is the unblinking and steady realism that has brought The Hold Steady comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan – a willingness to say it like it is, not merely how we wish it were. In this way, The Hold Steady live into their name – a band that ‘holds the gaze’ as both Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Lacan only describe and the listener is held to the power and the glory of our real lives that is still in need of real redemption.
All this ruminating on redemption amidst beer parties and murder scenes can lead one to think that the band is destined to be the religious torchbearers of the alt rock scene. While that might come to pass, I doubt it. This is no Icarus band seeking to take flight and escape the world on waxen wings by soaring into the abstract. This is a truly incarnate band through and through. As Finn himself stated when NPR’s Steve Inskeep asked him if thought all his reflection on spiritual matters might result in becoming like Cat Stevens (moving away from music and into the mystic), “I think I’m more religious than spiritual. I don’t know if I’m that spiritual a person; I just like going to church. I wonder if I might [be] the opposite of Cat Stevens and then be too normal and end up watching too many baseball games and eating too many hot wings.”
If Finn’s lyrics are anything like his conversations, I would sit down with a bucket of hot wings at the ballgame after church with him anytime.