Open Door Policy finds The Hold Steady still rocking, but the group skews self-referential almost to the point of parody.
After ending an otherwise shaky 2010s run on a solid return to form with Thrashing Through the Passion, The Hold Steady is back with Open Door Policy, a raucous, ambling rock album in the style of, well, themselves. The swagger of Craig Finn’s signature half-sung, half-spoken vocals is back, present alongside all of the classic THS sounds, and it’s in these comfortable corners that the group finds their greatest successes on the record. But, as these go, that familiarity also works to their detriment, retreading ground they’ve covered before.
Perhaps one explanation for this rehash is that no one loves The Hold Steady quite like The Hold Steady loves The Hold Steady, and Open Door Policy is no exception to this career-long rule. The album is rife with references to their other songs, starting with the first lines of opening track “The Feelers”: “It was an early morning meet-up at the mansion on the mountain / the maestro still had glitter on his face” is likely a point towards Thrashing Through the Passion’s “Star 18,” referencing a similar mansion meeting. On the same track, there’s a typical reference to St. Francis, one in a series of patron saint references that occurs throughout their whole catalog. This penchant for knowing nods and saintly riffs is also present in the introductory lines on “Family Farm,” with Finn singing, “St. Catherine’s was a nightmare, you know they took away my headphones.” Elsewhere, on “Unpleasant Breakfast,” there are references to a horse girl, perhaps the very same who was sung about on tracks like “Chips Ahoy!” and “The Weekenders.” These layers of self-reference aren’t inherently ill-advised, but in accumulating, they do begin to feel a bit tacky here, something a band known for their pub rock influences should already be trying to avoid. That said, such references will primarily be noticed by (and presumably intended for) long-time listeners of the band, a demographic likely to be delighted to be in the know. For the unfamiliar, at worst these lyrics might scan as nonsensical, hardly a rock sin. More frustrating is that even when the lyrical content isn’t relying on reference, it tends towards eye-roll cliché, notable particularly on “Riptown” — “The kid’s a computer that’s been programmed to dream” comes to mind as a most egregious example.
All of that aside, it’s important (and fair) to note that the band still sounds excellent. They’re all obviously talented musicians, riding a groove that artists who have been performing together for this many years often have a hard time maintaining. Despite the off-putting lyrical shenanigans, then, they manage to pull off a sincerity that transcends much of the indie rock from the era they emerged from, and now. The result of these varyingly successful parts is a patently decent album, just so long as you’re able to turn off your brain just enough to ignore some of the rote wordplay that accompanies the still capable rock sonics.
Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2021 | Part 2.