I'd like to go back in time, to the 18th of February 2007. The Hold Steady have just played one of the best shows I've ever seen at The Borderline. I'm awestruck, and have sung along the whole show. My clothes are damp with sweat, and my throat is raw, but I wait around to get some record sleeves signed. I brought them with me, with a very nice marker pen. Yes, I'm that kind of person, and I'm mildly drunk. It was a Hold Steady show. It seemed appropriate.
A couple of band members are moving around stage to pick up their equipment. I collar Franz, Buddy and Ted, and they sign my albums. There's a mini queue of people waiting for Craig to sign their tickets. That's something I'll never understand. As a memento, what point is there in a signed ticket? Getting a record signed is different. Every time you get the record out to play it, there's a reminder you met the artist, told them how good you thought the show was, that their record meant something to you personally. That signed album is a remembrance of an event that'll give you some satisfaction every time you play it.
But I digress. I get to the head of the queue and have a chat with Craig. He's very amenable. I tell him how much I liked the show (I believe I may have used the phrase "It was very entertaining"), and whip out the record sleeves. He signs the record sleeves for the last two records, but is taken aback by the appearance of the first album, which was yet to be re-issued and quite hard to get hold of over here. 'This is old school!", he says, and my fanboy heart skips a beat. He points out a man on the sleeve, tells me who they are, and that they helped them record the first album. He kept saying something that stuck in his head, says Craig; it's been buzzing around in his head recently. He hands me back my prizes. I tell him how much I liked the show. It was very entertaining, I said. You've said that already, he says. A young couple ask to get their tickets signed. Cheerio, I say. Keep the pen. As I'm walking up the stairs, I inspect the sleeves more closely. He's signed them all with his initials, and two words.
And a mere 18 months after Boys and girls in America was released, The Hold Steady deliver their fourth album. Having listened to it a number of times, there's good news and bad news. The good: The album is very much in the vein of Boys and Girls in America, and there are some killer tracks on here. None of it is phoned in. The Bad: It isn't as good as the first album, or the album that preceded it. It sits alongside Separation Sunday as a decent, respectable and workmanlike Hold Steady album.
The first two tracks promise great things. 'Constructive Summer' and 'Sequestered in Memphis' are both excellent, rip roaring singalongs. The stuff of old. 'One for the cutters' is good, but over-long and epic, and shows the change in structure that is at the heart of Stay Positive. Although we're given characters in songs, and Craig is as reliable a storyteller as ever, the characters that feature are unnamed. This is a big jump for the listeners, who have previously associated with Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon. Even way back with Lifter Puller, Finn was telling stories with a set of heroes and villains. Here the stories become anecdotes without the context of characterisation, and while sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Perhaps it isn't a fair criticism, but old fans may well be disappointed, and new listeners may find some of the songs a bit vague and undernourished.
The second half picks up from the title track, which is as good as anything they've done, again a true Hold Steady singalong that references all their previous albums. It's followed by the one duffer on the album 'Magazines', but the closing one-two of 'Joke about Jamaica' and 'Slapped Actress' more than make up for the error. The former shows the stylistic choice Finn made paying off, the latter a huge closing track that evokes the best of Boys and Girls... So sometimes they still swing and hit big. Which means Stay Positive is still worth having as an album. Just don't expect the rewards to be as immediate or as numerous as their earlier work.
(Sadly my review copy misses the three bonus tracks available on the full CD version of the album. I'd wager that 'Ask her for Adderall' is the best of the three, as it shows up as a bonus on the vinyl too. But that's only a guess...)