But while Finn walks along E Street, his right hand, guitarist Tad Kubler, wields the hammer of the gods. Led Zeppelin has long been implicit in the Hold Steady’s music, and Finn even name-checks a handful of the band’s tunes on “Joke About Jamaica.” But it’s Kubler who brings the influence front-and-center on Stay Positive, unleashing titanic riffs, like on “Navy Sheets,” which marries Houses of the Holy-style thunder with a keyboard straight out of the Cars’ playbook. “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” though, is where Kubler glows hottest and channels Jimmy Page to the fullest. As the song begins, Kubler’s electric 12-string chimes, setting the mournful tone. But the solo is where he takes true flight. Tad lies in wait while Finn nails the rock bottom of addiction — “She says that she’s sick but she won’t get specific/The sutures and bruises are none of my business/This guy from the north side comes down to visit/His visits they only take five or six minutes.” And before Finn’s voice can tail off, Kubler begins to soar in an elegy that’s logical, lyrical, spiritual, and mystical, every bit as resonant as Finn’s devastating words.
Producer John Agnello returns for the second straight album, and the band — toughened and tightened by relentless touring — sticks close to the bar band fury of Boys and Girls in America, with horns and strings adding punch and texture. But twice the sound strays in ways that are as disquieting as Finn’s darker moods. On “One for the Cutters,” a harpsichord, baroque and eerie, cuts through the twin guitar clatter to frame the tale of a girl who comes home from college with a crank habit, a faraway stare, and a penchant for partying in the woods with townies. And on the droning “Both Crosses,” a banjo (played by J. Mascis), vibraphone, and theremin lend to the gauzy haze of religious and sexual reverie, where visions of crucifixions mesh with the merging of bodies, and “transverberation” means more than the piercing of hearts.
As dark as it can be, though, the record has moments of sparkling light, like “Sequestered in Memphis,” the scorching and comic first single, anchored by Bobby Drake’s stalwart drumming, where a credulous bar-hopping business traveler hooks up with the wrong woman and winds up on the wrong side of the law. But more than tragedy, comedy, or even spiritual longing, the album’s lingering note is hope.
If ever a song epitomized the Hold Steady, it’s the full-throttle title track, an autobiographical anthem propelled by Kubler’s steady riffing and Franz Nicolay’s whiplash organ. A wet kiss to the band’s fiercely devoted fans, it’s relentlessly self-referential, a Where’s Waldo of lyrics from all three previous albums and a tip of the hat to those who have supported them along the way: “We couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you!” But the song is also a call to — and an acceptance of — responsibility. Finn knows what it is for a scene to disintegrate in a cloud of drugs and dissension, and he implores himself and the fans not to let that happen, urging everyone on in his own fervently optimistic fashion: “Whoah-hoah-hoah! Whoah-hoah-hoah! We gotta stay positive!”