Monday, August 08, 2016

The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday (2005)

We mix our own mythologies. We push them out through PA systems
We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen
I'm not saying that we could save you
But we could put you in a place where you could save yourself
If you don't get born again at least you'll get high as hell

- Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night, The Hold Steady

Though I often find it difficult to make lists and to ranks records or musicians, I would say that Separation Sunday is probably my favourite record of all time. I have praised other records, like those from Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, et al. But, this record is nothing short of a masterpiece. At first, I considered the record to be a pleasing affair with a great bunch of tunes. After a few listens, something clicked and I found that I had a hard time not listening to it. For a long period of time, whenever I grabbed a CD from the shelf or fired up the iPod, this is the album I always chose.

Wikipedia has a good summary of what the record is all about:
Separation Sunday is the second studio album by The Hold Steady, released on May 3, 2005 through Frenchkiss Records. A concept album, Separation Sunday follows the stories of Craig (the narrator), Holly (short for Halleluiah), a sometimes addict, sometimes prostitute, sometimes born again Christian/Catholic (and sometimes all three simultaneously); Charlemagne, a pimp; and Gideon, a skinhead, as they travel from city to city and party to party. (All three characters made appearances on the band's previous album, Almost Killed Me, and reappear in "First Night", and "Same Kooks" on Boys and Girls in America, and then again in "Ask Her For Adderall", a bonus track from Stay Positive.)

Separation Sunday is lyrically dense, full of Biblical allusions, intertextual and self references (e.g., in "Don't Let Me Explode," when Holly is asked about Charlemagne, "she just smiled all polite-like and said something vague"; in Almost Killed Me's closing track, "Killer Parties," the narrator instructs listeners, "If they ask about Charlemagne/Be polite, say something vague"), word play, and puns ("Stevie Nix": "She got screwed up by religion/she got screwed by soccer players"). Vocalist/songwriter Craig Finn typically delivers these lyrics in a distinct flavor of sing-speak.

Musically, Separation Sunday engages Classic rock motifs -- guitar solos, riff-based structures, use of piano and organ, and guitar harmony. Structurally, however, most songs eschew the standard "verse-chorus-verse" song structure, frequently foregoing choruses or refrains altogether. In a review of the album, Blender described The Hold Steady as "sound[ing] like the best bar band in the world." [source]
I'd second that best bar band line, so it's truly bizarre that Allmusic awards the record only 4 of five stars. This, in my mind, is a perfect record. So, let's see what Allmusic has to say:
It is a much darker record [than Almost Killed Me], revolving around drug casualties, broken lives, a hoodrat fixation, spiritual and physical dissipation, and general despair, and there aren't as many easy laughs this time out -- but instead the listener gets lots of head-shaking wonderment at Craig Finn's genius lyrics and voice. His gruff, in-your-ear vocals negotiate the twisting torrent of words like a world-class skater kid. He is insanely literate and insanely insistent: he's like the guy who calls at 2:30 a.m. in a frenzy to holler about his latest disaster of the heart, the bar-stool poet with a religious obsession, or the guy who corners you at a party and just won't shut up about how Boston are the missing link between the Beatles and Derrick May -- only you don't mind because he is strangely brilliant. He is also just about the best rock & roll frontman since Bob Pollard. In fact, the group sounds a bit like Guided By Voices at times, only a Guided By Voices that want to kick your sorry can up and down the length of the bar. Or maybe a GBV that worship Springsteen instead of the Who. Whipping up a classic rock-inspired frenzy of monitor-straddling guitar riffs, dual harmony leads, E Street piano flourishes, and galloping horns, the band behind Finn sounds like nothing less than Jim Steinman's dream group. You could talk about great individual songs (the epic "How a Resurrection Really Feels," the piledriving album opener "Hornets! Hornets!," the weird and almost funky "Charlemagne in Sweatpants"), but the strength of the album is in the flow from song to song and the way the intensity level (which starts off at a near fever pitch) elevates until your head is just about ready to burst from the thrill of it all. Call it a quaint idea in 2005, but Separation Sunday is truly an album, one that sounds almost perfect when played from beginning to end in the proper running order. Block out about 42 minutes sometime, hold steady, and get ready for indie rock -- no, rock & roll -- at its sweatiest, most intense, and most impressive. Long live the album; long live the Hold Steady.
So, why only four stars? Of course, not every one agrees. On, someone said this:
I bought that last cd and it SUCKED! The singer sings monotone the whole entire time and doesn't have any variations of tone. The music isn't half bad, it isn't great, but it certainly isn't so good that i can ignore the lame-o singer. its just terrible terrible terrible. if you listen to anything that i say hear this: do not buy this album, you will regret it for all of eternity!
I truly feel sorry for the person who wrote that. 

I'm not a religious person and there is a deeply religious theme to this record, so it might be odd that I feel so strongly about it. I can suspend my disbelief in fairly tales long enough to enjoy this record. 

I saw him at the riverbank
He was breaking bread and giving thanks
With crosses made of pipes and planks
Leaned up against the nitrous tanks

And he said take a hit
Hold your breath and I'll dunk your head
Then when you wake up again
Yeah, you'll be high as hell and born again

- Banging Camp, The Hold Steady

Like the first record, there are lots of names dropped, like: Humbert Humbert, Cain, Abel, McKenzie Phillips, the Four Horsemen, Jesus, St. Theresa, Stevie Nix [sic], Mary Tyler Moore, Rod Stewart, Nelson Algren, Paddy (Patrick Costello), William Butler Yeats, William Blake, Saint Paul, and St. Peter.

Prices for the original pressing of this LP are as insane as those sought for the debut. The two copies for sale now on discogs are listed at about $250 and $405 Canadian. I opted for this 2016 re-pressing.

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