The Hold Steady – ‘Open Door Policy’ album review

The Hold Steady return with ‘Open Door Policy’, the follow-up to 2019’s critically revered ‘Thrashing Thru the Passion’. The now six-piece again worked with producer Josh Kaufman to deliver 10 richly developed pieces of storytelling that examine issues including wealth, power, capitalism, ambition, opportunism and survival…

Gentle stabs at the piano signal the start of the album opener ‘The Feelers’ as Craig Finn sets the scene: ‘On his desk there was a pistol and a pipe’. The guitar hooks and drums come crashing in with a ’70s Americana-infused sound as Craig talks about cheating wives, spacemen and dealers (‘It feels like now we’re in this party deep’). ‘Spices’ has a fuzzier feel to start with before veering into a sound that falls somewhere between Nick Cave and the blues. Craig delivers hopelessly romantic lines about falling for someone who is not good for you: ‘I kind of like it when she’s laughing at me’; ‘Now we’re back in touch and she’s up to old tricks’. However, this lead character is happy to let this go as ‘It feels pretty good when she kisses me’.

This self-depreciating tone follows through to ‘Lanyards’ – a song all about the perils and fickle nature of fame: ‘Back in my hometown there was nothing but the hum of the locusts. I had the rest of my life to get used to being washed out of showbiz’. This song also features the defining line ‘She’s never gone deep but she might make an exception for Shark Week’.

Craig offers some sage advice at the beginning of ‘Family Farm’: ‘I wish you wouldn’t engage with all these creeps because they’re never gonna love you that one specific way that you want them all to love you’. ‘Unpleasant Breakfast’ has all kinds of Beck-style musical twists and turns as Craig recounts the tale of a hotel that was haunted by a sailor who lost his treasure in a harbour (‘That’s back when I found romance in these ghosts’) and the effect this has on a doomed relationship: ‘Every morning we burn the bread, walk it down to the water’s edge, see the seagulls seek cigarettes’; ‘I no longer see romance in these ghosts, this coffee’s cold, this toast is gross’. Doused in a melodic alt-folk sound complete with handclaps, ‘Riptown’ is another song that brings to life flawed characters and their struggles, starting with a description of a kid who ‘said my superpower is ‘I say what I mean’ and he was always in the red, white and blue’ before turnings its attention to a woman with different issues: ‘The doctors kept saying trust the medication but when it she thought it might be a curse’.

The penultimate ‘Me & Magdalena’ continues in this vein amidst glitchy drums and potent riffs as Craig first starts talking about people fighting over trivial things like the crumbs of popcorn and potato chips before interests change and evolve – and not always for the better: ‘First they’re into death and then they’re into dust and then they’re into disco so now they’re into drugs’. It then becomes a heartbreaking tale of addiction as the subject moves away to follow a troubled addict, leaving their possessions behind (‘Records are heavy, you can’t hurry love’) before the narrator reveals the emptiness with a sublime metaphor: ‘There’s something in the silence that hurts a bit to her’. The moody yet melodic ‘Hanover Camera’ is all about how a decadent evening (one of those ‘Massive Nights’?) can lead to insecurities coming to the fore, even if you do make it backstage with your favourite band: ‘I remember you were tender when you tried to make it better’.

Although the characters in these songs may have issues, there’s always hope and joy just around the corner with The Hold Steady, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of their ‘Open Door Policy’. Come in…


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