The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams (Positive Jams/Washington Square)
I thought about how to best collect my thoughts on Teeth Dreams, the sixth album by The Hold Steady, for several weeks after I first heard it. I’m intrinsically tied to the band in more ways than I can articulate, so giving anything less than my feelings surrounding this release would feel totally inauthentic. It’s probably best to start with some context.
Heaven is Whenever was the sound of transition. A lot was happening with the band in 2010. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay had left, taking with him the barroom drama that permeated their first four records. Sonically, they took many chances with instrumentation and production that took the focus away from the trademark guitar element and focused more on atmospherics. The result was admirable, but came away feeling a lot less like a Hold Steady record than anything that preceded it. Less celebration, more darkness. The scene seemed a little less sunny.
That wasn’t the only change. The album’s first tour showed the band trying out a six-piece three-guitar, bass and keys lineup. It didn’t quite gel as much as it powered through each show with sheer force. By winter, they’d pared down to a five-piece. Steve Selvidge was installed as a full time member, bringing with him guitar texturization and muscle that wasn’t present with Tad Kubler and Craig Finn’s previous interplay. Just like that, the band pivoted from ‘bar band’ to ‘guitar band’.
You wouldn’t have picked up on the change if you didn’t see them live in the interim. For many, Heaven felt like an abdication, going from one knockout record after another to something that felt less full and more like it was compensating for a missing element. Perhaps that was the case, but it could also be said it was also the product of trying to do too much in too little time in the face of major change.
But here we are four years later with Teeth Dreams. To put how long that is into context: in that time, their contemporaries Guided By Voices got back together and released five new albums while singer Robert Pollard put out SEVEN of his own. Sure, it’s an extreme example, but it’s not entirely far off. These guys made their name trying to keep up with Uncle Bob in more ways than one at some point in their career.
The album begins with the propulsive rocker, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, which quickly gives way to the shimmering “Spinners”. Here Finn sings “Heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off,” Full of bright guitars and a propane-fueled solo, it’s the closest thing The Hold Steady has ever written as a crossover hit.
Next up is “The Only Thing”, a slice of jangle pop infused with organ by studio musician Al Gamble that’s both a wink to their past as well as a distillation of present. It’s a dexterous move by the band, a song only accomplished by a few years away from recording, and in turn it is one of the album’s best.
Speaking of highlights, “On With The Business” comes at the album’s midpoint. Here, Finn reaches “maximum Craig”, spitting a dizzying array of lyrics (“Blood on the carpet/mud on the mattress/waking up with that American sadness”) over anxious guitars, building towards a vocal delay bit that replicates his lyrical repetition off mic at their live show. Finally, it segues into an absolutely face-melting guitar solo.
Overall, the album showcases another layer of depth that was not apparent in previous Hold Steady recordings. This is for a few reasons. Producer Nick Raskulinecz, who admittedly did not know much about the band prior to recording, seemed to instinctively know how to handle the band’s lineup and play best to their strengths. The guitar duo of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge provide stunning guitar textures, while bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake (who has never sounded better) re-establish themselves as one of rock’s best rhythm sections.
While this collection of songs mostly focuses on loud, immediate rock and roll, the emotional one-two punch of “Almost Everything” and album closer “Oaks” cannot be understated. “Almost Everything” is a quiet ballad that is a sonic cousin with earlier songs like “First Night” and “Lord I’m Discouraged”. While it doesn’t crest quite like those songs, it’s just as beautiful.
There is nothing The Hold Steady has ever created like “Oaks”. Clocking in at over nine minutes, it’s a sprawling masterwork that kneads and twists through peaks and valleys, with Finn conjuring dreamlike images as the song turns the corner with a gorgeous melodic solo carrying the song through its final minutes. Kubler stated that at one point he felt that this would be the last record he’d make with Finn. If this were goodbye, it’s a hell of a way to go. While there has always been sentimentality in Hold Steady songs, this one feels like it has real stakes. It’s just heavier.
For a band that looked like they may not make another record, Teeth Dreams is an album that pulls off an impressive magic trick. It’s a return to form for a group that looked like they lost their way, while alternately showcasing who they are now. Ultimately, it’s a portrait of a band that has the gift of hindsight and the confidence to make changes when they’re most critical. We benefit from it, and they’re better for it.