Album Review: The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy

[Positive Jams; 2021]

Brooklynites The Hold Steady are making up for lost time. Following their sixth album, 2014’s Teeth Dreams, the beloved indie rockers took a hiatus, returning in 2019 with Thrashing Thru the Passion. In between, lead singer Craig Finn delivered three solo records, and even went on tour with adjacent bar-band mainstays Titus Andronicus in 2016. This seems to have helped them all rediscover something, because after the staleness of their early 2010s work, The Hold Steady found themselves revitalized somewhat on Thrashing Thru The Passion, and that reamains true on Open Door Policy.

Before Thrashing, it had been over a decade since the Hold Steady displayed the magic that made them so wonderful in the beginning. 2010’s Heaven is Whenever was too polished, and Teeth did little to put our minds at ease for the future of the band. Taking the time to rework their thoughts, rebound from the ever-present exhaustion of writing, recording, and touring a new album four times in four years, a break was needed. Open Door Policy doesn’t feel as fresh as Thrashing, but it does remind everyone why The Hold Steady were riding on top of the world in the mid-2000s. Finn’s vocals are less nasally slurred, and lyrically he’s telling a slightly grander story instead of just writing individual songs.

There’s no strong narrative here though, but there’s certainly a connective tissue that wraps each moment. Finn’s returned to that safe space, complete with classic rock references and quirky but spot-on observations about society. What impresses this go round is how expansive the instrumentals are, and how well they pair with Finn’s words. Opener “The Feelers” shows that Finn can still describe a situation fully, without using too many adjectives, and it tells us everything we need to know; “She said she was just putting out the feelers / When she asked if she could choke you / Underneath the blacklight poster.” Couple this with some of the best guitar work from them and you’ve got one of the best openers from the band in some time. Another example comes from mid-album highlight “Heavy Covenant”, which sounds rugged and polished at the same time, and it even has that mid-2000s feel to it for good measure.

As usual, personal relationships are the fulcrum for Finn’s stories. It’s what draws many to his music, as he has a peculiar analysis at times. Even when he uses innocuous-seeming phrases like “You wanna go get some beers?” in “Spices” it comes with hefty baggage. Finn drops geographical references like breadcrumbs, scattered as wide as this globe, but always leads us somewhere interesting. “But it turns out that California is just / tripping and disinterested kissing / Back in my hometown there was nothing / but the hum of the locusts,” he sings on “Lanyards”, contrasting West Coast dreams with a portrait of small town America – one of the most notable calling cards of the bar-band mentality.

Open Door Policy often finds the Hold Steady in familiar territory, but they’re not afraid to take risks either. The plucky “Unpleasant Breakfast” is most notable, as it has a groove with near-spoken-word delivery and a thudding beat – all underscored by catcalls and howls, and let’s not forget about that saxophone. It’s a pleasantly 90s throwback, a comforting radio-rock moment that is reminiscent of the heydays of Cake. Although, Finn isn’t providing fodder for hair-gelled alpha males to use as pick-up lines, this is alternative rock with meaning, as he begins by recalling an interaction at the beach but ends it with an apt analogy and dismissal; “This coffee’s cold / This toast is gross / I no longer see the romance in these ghosts.”

This time around, The Hold Steady aren’t abandoning their principles for shinier production. Their insistence for organic compositions stands out thoughtfully on Open Door Policy, and it reminds us precisely why we fell in love with The Hold Steady in the first place. Despite them being slightly aged rockers, they haven’t forgotten what it means to rock out and to give in to the desire shout at the top of your lungs when you are struggling.