Friday, April 6, 2012

How A Resurrection Really Feels - The Hold Steady

I was at a show last weekend and I mentioned to an acquaintance that I'd given up beer for Lent when he looked at me, a little surprised and said "don't take this wrong way but you're not the kind of person I expected to be religious." Leaving aside my beliefs about the equivalency between belief and metaphysics, the positive power of organized belief or any other religious justifications, let me just say that I took his statement as a compliment.

Yes, I'm a Catholic. Not even of the "lapsed" variety (at least not entirely), which might be a bit more common in the music world, Craig Finn and I have that in common. Without sounding too much like some guy with an acoustic guitar who wants to tell how how Jesus is the biggest "rock star" of all time, I would like to argue that religion and rock are just as natural bedfellows as foes. While at best, most people might cop to being "spiritual but not religious", organized religion and music subcultures fill a lot of the same basic needs. They're centered around ways of trying to understand the world each with it's own group worship sessions and holy books/songs to be mediated upon at home. In the same way that cops and criminals often end up with more similarities to each other than to others they know, I feel like religion and rock (or "underground culture" in general) are often just doing the same thing differently. Anyway, that's the kind of thing I often think about this time of year as I punch up The Hold Steady on my headphones for it's annual heavy Lenten/Easter rotation.

Although it's wonderful on its own, "How A Resurrection Really Feels" is the final song of the story/song cycle that is 2005's Separation Sunday providing a satisfying ending to sweeping, frenetic, jumbled masterpiece of a story. As Craig Finn quickly explains, this is the story of Holly (nee Hallelujah), a hoodrat from the Twin Cities. Over the previous ten tracks we've seen her travel the country immersing herself in a blur of drugs, men and mystical experiences. After crossing the country and hearing story that starts out lovely, but gets ugly and druggy and bloody (to poach a phrase) you're just as ready as Holly is for some kind of peace and escape. It's like Finn's created an album equivalent of the Stations of the Cross featuring the same mixture of violence and pain cut with a small but powerful measure of hope buried deeply within that so perfectly captures tangle of human emotions that somehow combine to create Faith. The song's explicit depiction of the Hallelujah-as-Christ becomes that much more earned and satisfying within that context.

Of course, context aside, the message of the song would matter a whole lot less if it weren't delivered along with one of the shit-kickinest, most awesome bar-band backings of the group's career. The song enters on a Tad Kuebler guitar line that reels in like a stumbling drunk before collapsing into a satisfyingly crunchy full band entry like a body onto pavement. Finn slurs his way through the song with a perfect blend of sing-speaking that allows him to words in a way that allows him to play both a storyteller and observer at different times in the same sentence. The song rumbles along for a few minutes as Holly crashes into church and goes through her tale and rebirth before settling into a late groove. As Finn rattles off a few parting descriptions, a female backing chorus just sings "walk on bye" as the band rights itself. The smooth fade to the end coasts by with horns, a patented sweet 70's solo from Kuebler and even some tinkling children's bells. The redemption is delivered as the song fades to black ending the album in a way that can only be described as gloriously cinematic.

You can probably observe Craig Finn's faith most easily when he's on stage. He'll spread his arms, connect with the audience, bring people into the show - at the end of the day, Finn's an evangelist. Rock n' Roll is something in which he has Faith with a capital "F". People who talk about great rock shows as religious experiences may be cliched but they're not wrong. For centuries Sunday mass served as a time for the community to come together, sing, reaffirm their beliefs, draw strengths for the days ahead and find nourishment in their collective beliefs and lives. If that doesn't describe a concert by your favorite band, perhaps it's time to reconsider that choice. Finn and the Hold Steady merely make overt and earnest appeals to communion, hope, community and joy that we come out hoping to find.

Happy Easter - think about it.

How A Resurrection Really Feels - The Hold Steady  Buy Separation Sunday

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