Somewhere between middle school and high school, I was introduced to The Hold Steady for the first time. I hated this Minnesota-born band because I couldn’t understand how Craig Finn could be a “lead singer” if he wasn’t exactly singing. I came around with age, eventually realizing that storytelling and lyrical artistry more than made up for an inability to croon like a nightingale. Being one of the youngest attendees at a First Avenue show in Minneapolis and getting the first taste of my brother’s approval didn’t hurt either. At the end of the day, however, it was an appreciation for the characters Finn painted as he sang-spoke and the way the band’s different instruments came together like a funky post-party jam session.
My early crime against the band made me want to like its latest album Teeth Dreams as a sort of retroactive apology for my initial disloyalty. It’s not a bad album and it’s recognizable as one by The Hold Steady. It has the expected shout-outs to the Twin Cities and follows characters through different points in their lives, all filtered through the band’s recognizable, signature style of storytelling.
Yet all of these elements are a little bit muddled. I can still recall my first positive Hold Steady listening experience with Boys and Girls in America; the quirky lyrics that jump like Finn’s dance moves, Charlemagne the pimp and an unmatched bombastic mix of everything from keyboard to guitar. With Teeth Dreams, I can’t pull out anything in particular to take away. The instruments seem to blend together; there are no guitar licks or joyfully erratic bounces from one rhythm to the next, just a generalized sound that is recognizable as The Hold Steady.
The lyrics don’t stand out either – surprising considering how truly uniquely the Hold Steady tends to tell its stories. As with the music, the lyrics are not bad and they aren’t inauthentic, but they’re not memorable either. If the music is a half-hearted muddle, the lyrics are equally directionless. “Spinners” tells a woman to get back out there, post-heartbreak, while “Wait a While” disagrees and says to “wait a while” instead.
The album goes out with a nine-minute-long song that only underlines the problems with the album. It’s as though it’s admitting that the songs lack differentiation, so why bother making three three-minute songs and coming up with new names?
In many ways, this feels like a different band taking a stab at being The Hold Steady. It checks the boxes of their sound but lacks the heart. When I think of The Hold Steady, I think of the wiry keyboardist alive with electric energy. I think of Craig Finn half-singing, half-shouting and constantly in motion as though he can’t take the time to sing in case he forgets what he’s saying. I think of parties bigger than raves and heartbreaks out in the suburbs, junkies and pimps and the desperation for connection. I couldn’t find any of that in this new album; it was only going through the motions. It left me without a reason to dislike it, but without a reason to play it again.
2.5 out of 5 stars