Romancing ghosts: The Hold Steady – ‘Open Door Policy’

❉ Recorded before lockdown, this is a collection of stories, “snapshots” and encounters at bar rooms, gigs and film sets.

Open Door Policy is the eighth album by American six-piece band The Hold Steady and follows on from their Thrashing Thru The Passion album of 2019.  Recorded (before the lockdown) in New York with producer/musician Josh Kaufman and engineer D James Goodwin, a lot has obviously happened in America since this record was made. Open Door Policy creates stories around a world of bars, ballrooms, and morning hangover “daybreak parades” that even a non-American listener may now feel nostalgic for.

With Craig Finn’s vocals and the driving multi layered instrumentation still seemingly influenced by Springsteen (and possibly The Band and Jonathan Richman), Open Door Policy seems like a mature album by a mature group. With piano from Franz Nicolay, overlapping guitars by Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge, bass from Galen Polivka and Bobby Drake on drums the album is a collection of stories, “snapshots” and encounters at bar rooms, gigs and film sets.

The album opens with The Feelers, a song with beautiful bar room piano that alternates with E-Street Band style percussion and guitars. Cryptic alliterative lyrics about a meet up at “the mansion on the mountain” and references to a married woman “putting out the feelers” set the tone for the encounters on the rest of the album.

The next track Spices (which seems to be about a similar bar room meet up with an old acquaintance) has driving drums and overlapping guitars that speed up and drive the album forward beautifully leading to track three, Lanyards, one of the standout tracks on the album.

Apparently about an attempted suicide and hospitalization (seen from the point of view of a Californian film location shoot?)  the narrative seems to blur between fantasy and reality – (“when they kicked in the door, they said that’s way too much blood for a nosebleed”.) 

Next up is Family Farm, one of the two singles already released from the album and a song that references both Talking Heads’ This Must Be The Place and Van Halen’s Eruption and again seems to be about medication and hospitalisation.

Unpleasant Breakfast another stand-out track with a (literally) haunting chorus, a cryptic reference to Patti Smith? (“All the burns on the windowsill – says she’s crazy about Horses still”) and to “antipsychosis meds” is again a snapshot encounter with an old acquaintance “the girl in last year’s picture” and includes a brilliant lyric that goes from “Back when I saw romance in these ghosts” to “I no longer see the romance in these ghosts”. 

Next track Heavy Covenant is perhaps my favourite track on the album and was the second track released as a single. Said by lyricist Craig Finn to be about technology, this epic song also tells the story of an encounter with a musician, “I palmed him almost 40 bucks.”  

The Prior Procedure leads to Riptown which sounds like it could be from an early Elvis Costello album and the two strong final tracks Me and Magdalena and the brilliant Hanover Camera with its alliterative line. “Hannah with the henna on her hands”.

I recently read an interview with Robbie Robertson of the Band in connection with the 50th anniversary rerelease of the album Stage Fright.  Robertson said that at the time the film The Last Waltz was released he believed future bands would be influenced by it and take it to the next level. It may not be an innovation, but the Hold Steady are definitely a band that take that spirit forward forty plus years later.

❉ The Hold Steady: ‘Open Door Policy’ (Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers) is released 19 February 2021, in a variety of formats, including standard black vinyl and limited editions of CD and coloured vinyl. Pre-Order Here.

❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre

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