The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
So there’s these guys, right—bunch of fuck-ups, real dregs of society. Kind of guys who never get their shit straight, always bouncing back and forth between one cheap thrill and another scrape with death.
But they get along pretty good, got their own tough-nut language, unsparing and unsentimental, poetic in its brutality, a brilliant way to hide their suffering, make it all seem like part of the game.
Then there’s this girl, and she ain’t so lucky. She tries to be just as tough as the boys but she can’t pull off that act, and she does suffer, half naked and three quarters wasted. The guys resigned themselves to their fate so they can joke about it, at least they’ve got that. The girl just keeps looking for someone to save her. She might get smacked around but still she keeps coming back for help—she’s a real sexy mess without it.
I’m sure your first thought was that I was talking about the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday, especially since Stylus has apparently decided to devote 60% of this month’s content to that particular record.
However, Minneapolis-bred Craig Finn and his glorified New York-based bar band were already beaten to that trope this year by Sin City, the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller film that tracked the seedy downfalls and violent redemptions of damaged men, rendered in flinty tough-guy prose that was more purple than the Twins, Vikings, and T-Wolves combined.
Just as Sin City revived the gin-soaked terseness of Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, and film noir, so too does Separation Sunday proudly uphold the slang-heavy poetics propelling drug-addled artists from William S. Burroughs to Lou Reed to Denis Johnson.
There’s a lure and a value to both kinds of gutter talk, but they also share a common danger, both being rigid forms of artifice that often substitute pointlessly self-reflexive machismo for actual emotional investment.
Sure, there are clever turns of phrase to be found here—Marv’s line about how modern cars all look like electric shavers syncs up nicely with Finn’s musings on “how a cool car makes a guy seem that much cooler.” Miho “makes a Pez dispenser” out of Jack Rafferty’s head while Hartigan compares his capacity for consoling Nancy to “a palsy patient performing brain surgery with a pipe wrench”—likewise, Finn’s got great jokes about Rod Stewart, Jackie O, and drinking gin from a jam jar.
After a while though it just gets kind of tiring, all these overpolished gems, supposed to be signifying something unfathomably tragic and portentous but ending up as little more than excuses for the storytellers to come off coolly unfazed by their degeneracy and poignantly resigned to their fate. Sin City is far and away the worst offender, Marv opining “this ain't no bar-room brawl. These are the bad days. The all-or-nothing days. They're back” while Dwight ruminates on “The Fire, baby. It'll burn us both. It'll kill us both. There's no place in this world for our kind of fire.” While technically a much better writer, Finn nonetheless sounds similarly toothless and disingenuous in his heroically shiftless accounts of “shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church,” looking for “a simple place to score,” “driving round and coming down and tryna hook up with an exit ramp,” “defeated and depressed” but with “some sweet stuff tucked into our socks.”
It’s just the first and most superficial comparison between Separation Sunday and Sin City, a pair of unjustly heralded works steeped in Catholic overtones that use impenetrable language to make intimations of a deeper spiritual struggle, but never ask their world-weary male creations to make any genuine sacrifices to that end.
The gender qualifier is critical here—both Rodriguez/Miller and Finn put girls in the middle of their sordid tales, but their experiences are markedly different from those of the men. Sin City undeniably flirts with misogyny in its perpetual cycle of (scantily clad, perennially battered) feminine helplessness and masculine rescue, and while Finn’s narratives aren’t nearly so narrow, the film’s male-female positioning does help us read Separation Sunday and understand why it comes off unfair and even a little chickenshit.
Specifically, you never get the sense listening to the album that Finn’s put himself on the line. Holly, Separation Sunday’s central figure, isn’t just a substitute or a stand-in, she’s a screen, allowing Finn and all the other miscreants who populate his songs to retain a measure of cool in the midst of their squalor.
Meanwhile, Finn puts Holly through the ringer, suffering countless indignities in her search for salvation—saving herself for “the scene,” sticking things into her skin, sleeping with skaters and soccer players, falling in love with the guys you can’t trust.
So you’re not the least bit surprised when Holly freaks out and runs right into the waiting arms of the Church. Never an actor, always acted upon, Holly never earns the agency to save herself. Sure, she puts on a good show of seeming tough, ripping off a cross from a schoolgirl in the subway, asserting how she “won’t be much for all this Humbert Humbert stuff,” believing herself more enthralled than enslaved. But then again, so did Lucille—you saw what happened to her hand—and so did Gail, who kicked plenty of ass but still needed Dwight to smack the shit out of her and then kiss her almost as hard.
Finn’s too smart to expect his druggies to save the dames, and when one of his guys sees Holly and says “she looked strung out and experienced / So we all got kinds of curious,” it’s actually a poignant sign of just how tragically depraved they’ve all become.
But at least they can still cling to the romance of their condition, and Finn (however consciously) sticks himself smack dab in the middle of this camp, even going so far as to offer Holly rock ‘n’ roll as a conduit to her own potential self-repair, modestly proposing, “I’m not saying we could save you but we could put you in a place where you could save yrself,” knowing full well that no matter how far you extend poetic license, most people are going to take that line as self referential. As an author, Finn’s certainly permitted to put anyone he wants in the center of his maelstrom and make them represent whatever he desires, but because of her distance and the inexorable tenor of her fate, all of Holly’s revelations consequently come off as far too easy and cheaply earned, no different from the superficial reckoning Miller and Rodriguez draw from their highly stylized world.
And the comparisons between Sin City and Separation Sunday don’t end there. Both have cowed a preponderance of critics, the former with its spectacular bloodshed (see Slate writer David Edelstein’s gushing declaration “I loved every gorgeous sick disgusting ravishing overbaked blood-spurting artificial frame of it”), the latter with its tirelessly quotable lyricism.
Turns out those showy traits cover a multitude of sins—in Sin City’s case it’s the unforgivably tin-eared dialogue, while for THS it’s their warmed-over Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy riffs and general lack of anything musically interesting to say. Granted, the band does sound tight as hell, but channeling their ferocity on faithfully replicating classic-rock-by-numbers is a colossal waste. Like the London Philharmonic covering Coldplay.
But there’s more to it than that for Separation Sunday. Now, I’d be stupid, naïve, and just plain wrong to suggest this is the Hold Steady’s primary draw, but it does seem worth noting that Finn, however unintentionally, overwhelmingly validates the stereotypical critic’s worldview—inveterately pugnacious and grouchy, virulently antagonistic towards hipsters. At the very least, Finn’s infamous lyrical pisstaking (revived here most pointedly in the line “at least in dying you don’t have to deal with new wave for a second time”), his unfailingly bitter tone, and his undeniable street and book smarts certainly don’t make him a tough sell to most rock writers, who have a historical love affair with misanthropic cranks that runs from Frank Zappa to David Thomas to Frank Black to James Murphy. Hell, Finn almost got his hooks into me with that mention of W.B. Yeats, the subject of my own pretentious senior honors thesis.
Oh yeah, and read that last sentence again, because it’s the last time you’ll ever see the word “hooks” used in reference to Separation Sunday. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” has got one, and there’s some “la la la la la la la la la” action on “Banging Camp” but that’s about it. The rest is just variations on a theme, Finn flapping his yap, hiding out behind Holly and grousing about the scene while the band recycles Springsteen and forgets to put in the choruses.
Refresh my memory—who’s supposed to be listening to this album again?