“I really believe that music is tied to memory more than any of us want to admit, and that good times and good memories very much influence our enjoyment of songs and albums … no matter what your favorite artist does, it will never be as good as the album he/she/they made when you were in college.”

The Hold Steady

Heaven is Whenever

That’s Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn discussing the meaning of “Sophomore Slump,” a song he released through an old side project known as The Brokerdealer.

Finn — an apt student of art, besides being a great artist himself — is soberingly correct: Songs don’t get scratched into our souls on musical merit alone, they must be great songs at the right time. College is certainly one of those times, and anyone lucky enough to have graduated college this spring was greeted at the starting gate by the Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America (Oct. 2006), met on the back stretch by Stay Positive (July 2008) and rewarded at the finish by Heaven is Whenever.

The timeframe is different for everyone, but the conclusion is the same: Even if Heaven is Whenever drops on the most sentimental day of your life, it still won’t match the resonance, spark or sex appeal of any of the peak Hold Steady albums.

The official departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay in January was the first indicator that something was amiss. But even if the record suffers from the lack of his contagious enthusiasm and eccentric songwriting flare, it’s Finn’s lane-shift to the middle of the road that is most to blame for the slowdown. Once a morality-play troubadour who sounded like he knew something with his cautionary tales of debauchery (“Hallelujah came to in a confession booth / Infested with infections / Smiling on an abscessed tooth” on Separation Sunday’s “Crucifixion Cruise”), now he plays the part of a well-meaning parent encouraging safety and moderation (“The kids are all distracted / No one wins at violent shows,” in “Barely Breathing”).

Finn also opts more for a love out of convenience than one of passion (“You won’t get every girl / You’ll love the ones you get the best,” in “Soft in the Center”), and he seems to have eschewed his uncanny ability to make partying sound creative and intellectual (“Tonight we’re gonna have a really good time / But I want to go to heaven on the day I die,” in “Our Whole Lives”).

With Separation Sunday producer Dean Baltulonis back at the helm, Heaven is Whenever seemed poised to return to the painfully raw, authentic delivery of that seminal record. Instead, this new disc is an exercise in alt-rock slickness, with skin-tight harmonies dressed to the nines in reverb and the drums and power-chord riffing trotted like debutantes to the extreme front of the mix.

In fairness, there are a few genuine Hold Steady classics that manage to survive the record’s overabundant flaws and keep it a worthwhile part of the band’s catalogue. “We Can Get Together,” the set’s emotional centerpiece, is a majestic drifter dripping with melody, heartache and rock‘n’roll name-checking, while understated opener “The Sweet Part of the City” eases in with leisurely acoustic swagger that shoots straight at back-porch nostalgics.

In that same quote about “Sophomore Slump,” Finn rejects the notion that talent is a fleeting gift that an artist can wake up one day having lost. Instead, Finn subscribes to the belief that artists should create for themselves rather than risk boredom by pandering to their fans. Considering how fan-friendly The Hold Steady has consistently been — “We were bored so we started a band / We’d like to play for you,” Finn reminds us on “The Sweet Part of the City” — the band deserves the space to make the album it wants, fan pressures be damned. But while eager Hold Steady devotees will consume Heaven is Whenever like a drug when it hits their speakers, when the dust settles they’ll still be reaching for Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America.

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