After the slightly underwhelming ‘Heaven is Whenever’, The Hold Steady return with their sixth album, ‘Teeth Dreams’. While the new album doesn’t quite see the band back to their very best, it certainly feels like a huge step in the right direction.
The Hold Steady’s strength has always been frontman Craig Finn’s immersive lyrics that at their best sound like pieces of beer-soaked barroom poetry. Over the course of their previous albums to date, Finn has introduced us to his own neatly crafted world of hopeless romantics stalking the bar scene and parties of big city America, stumbling through life the best they can. ‘Teeth Dreams’ sees a return to that familiar world, though this time is feels slightly muddier, with the band’s sound noticeably gruffer in parts and Finn’s own vocals less pronounced.
Opening track ‘I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You’ sees Finn in vociferous mood as he introduces a new flame to his old stomping grounds. It’s also a reintroduction for the rest of us back into his mythical city streets where he observes, “the room full of dudes… they cranked up the tunes and I could tell the whole thing kind of frightened you”. From then it’s onto the more upbeat ‘Spinners’, a victorious ode to romance which encourages a broken hearted girl to get back out there and find someone new. ‘Spinners’ sees Finn on top form lyrically as he delivers timely reminders that “it’s a big city, there’s a lot of love” and the brilliant, “heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off.”
‘The Only Thing’ and ‘On With The Business’ both conjure up more images of interweaving lives of boys and girls dealing with the struggles of everyday blue-collar life amidst a faint malaise which Finn gracefully dubs “that American Sadness”.
‘Big Cig’ meanwhile is a haunting character piece, the likes of which Finn loves to construct. This time it’s about a drug-taking chain-smoking girl, “burns on her skirt and smoke in her eyes”, who our fictional hero parties with and who he gets gratefully led astray by.
There are a couple of tracks on the album that do fail to make an impact however with ‘Runners High’ and ‘Wait a While’ in particular never really hitting home. For the most part though, ‘Teeth Dreams’ lures you into Finn’s world just as he intended, with the anthemic party highs of the likes of ‘Spinners’ sitting neatly alongside the blurry comedowns on tracks like ‘Almost Everything’.
The emphatic triumphalism of earlier releases may have subsided slightly and been replaced by a slightly more world-weary plea to hang on in there, but ‘Teeth Dreams’ is nonetheless an album that resonates strongly. As is the case with all Hold Steady releases, it isn’t an album that just focuses on the wild nights and highlights, it’s about the struggles and the heartache as well. A grungier and scuzzier sound gives it an angrier edge in places, and there’s plenty of moments of magic in there to suggest this is a band getting back to their very best.
– Rob Keeling