Published Feb 16, 2021Few bands have left a larger footprint in the mud of 21st-century rock than the Hold Steady. While 2006's Boys and Girls in America became the definitive soundtrack for a generation of uncertain youth, it serves as only one touchstone in a catalogue of highlights. The band's latest offering, Open Door Policy, finds the six-piece at their most comfortable — and experimental.
Continuing with the expanded lineup reintroduced on 2019's Thrashing Thru the Passion, the Hold Steady are demonstrating the comfort levels of a band with something to say but nothing to prove.
This comfort is the result of many things, the most obvious being age, but also changes in touring schedules and writing processes that better fit the lives of 40-something-rock stars. After doing two records without keyboardist Franz Nicolay and then taking a hiatus, they reunited with Nicolay in 2019 for Thrashing Thru the Passion, a record that saw them dip their toes back in the musical waters. Now, they're diving in headfirst.
Open Door Policy carries all the trademarks of a Hold Steady record: Craig Finn's distinctive vocals are supported by an effortlessly distorted sound that is equally as complex. Finn's lyrics are scattered with shady characters and messed-up souls, but there's more of an edge on Open Door Policy. Recorded in 2019, its themes of mental health, income inequality and isolation feels all the more relevant today. Tracks such as "Lanyards" — which stands among one of the Hold Steady's best songs — are enveloping and heartbreaking, while "Spices" demonstrates they've shed some of the apprehension of Thrashing Thru The Passion and know where every band member fits in.
But don't confuse Open Door Policy for a microwaved reheating of their Americana sound. The band didn't end their hiatus just for the money — there is more musical ground to cover. The electric beats of "Unpleasant Breakfast" expresses this experimental side, while the "Woo"s on the chorus feel like a reinvention of the backing vocals of the mid-2000s rock scene they exploded out of. On "Riptown," the Hold Steady do their best impression of the Band with a jaunty, bass-lead rhythm, loose horns and a honky-tonk style piano that recalls a smoke-filled bar. While not all the experiments work out — see the aforementioned "Woo"s — it's refreshing to see an old band try new tricks.
Where Open Door Policy really excels, however, is its constant sense of anxiety. Like one of those great nights the Hold Steady have spent two decades singing about, morning always comes eventually. Even the momentary, horn-fuelled releases aren't enough to fully relieve the tension. If art mimics life, then Open Door Policy's musical tension, timely themes and efforts to reimagine the band while remaining authentic deftly capture today's world. (Thirty Tigers)