Never underestimate the power of a man and his keyboard. Of course that sentence only really applies to bands that actually use a fair amount of keyboard in their music. But it stands to reason that The Hold Steady were one of those bands, at least for one period in their careers. Franz Nicolay, with his little moustache and wacky on-stage energy, became sort of the warm little heart of the band next to frontman Craig Finn’s lovelorn and wordy barfly. It was a great combination, mostly evidenced by the evolution of the band’s sound and extensive critical praise over the last few years. Nicolay may not have been in the band when their second album “Separation Sunday” was recorded, but he was there at the beginning of something big and pushed them to the next level for its follow-up. 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America” was almost like the birth of a whole new band, and suddenly this Springsteen by way of Minnesota group was at the precipice of indie stardom and a whole new world of popularity. The songs bent and cracked and soared and were filled with teens hooking up and breaking up and it was real sad but everybody seemed to have a good time. “Stay Positive” arrived in 2008, and while critical response was slightly more tempered and less zealous, it was clear with all the touring and word of mouth that these guys were more popular than ever. Album sales were also significantly better than they had ever been, to the point where it almost seemed like The Hold Steady were gearing up for a big crossover into the mainstream. Then Franz Nicolay left the band. In a recent interview, he said, not harboring any resentment towards his former bandmates, that he felt like they had reached a creative stalemate, so he left rather than get pinned down to the same sound. When their new album “Heaven Is Whenever” comes out next Tuesday, I think that Nicolay will be proven right.

Here’s what I’d like you to do, especially if you’re a die-hard Hold Steady fan – go listen to 2005’s “Separation Sunday” and then put on “Heaven Is Whenever” immediately afterwards. Better yet, if you can load both albums into your mp3 player and hit the shuffle button, I’m intrigued to know if you’re able to detect a difference in style between the two. I think the records blend together effortlessly, and that can be considered both a big plus and a huge minus. The positive is that “Separation Sunday” is a brilliant album, perhaps The Hold Steady’s best to date, and the idea of there being some sort of sequel to it might make some weak in the knees. Hell, the band even brought back Dean Baltulonis to produce the album, who was also responsible for “Separation Sunday”. The thing is though, it was sort of a record for that particular time and place, where this up-and-coming band finally started to make good on their debut album’s promise, and Craig Finn’s songwriting had evolved quickly to the point where his stories were as vivid and had some massive guitar riffs to back them up. Plus, after that album when Franz Nicolay came aboard, their sound continued to grow and expand to far more epic proportions. With “Heaven Is Whenever” and the absence of Nicolay, the keyboards are all but gone and the band returns to their pre-Nicolay days of loud, big riffs. You could say they’re taking a massive step backwards. All the distance they’ve come since 2005 seems to have been wiped away and suddenly the past few years never existed. But even as a “non-sequel” to “Separation Sunday,” “Heaven Is Whenever” still falls short of that album’s excellence, and suddenly I’m starting to realize that between the endless riffs and Finn’s storytelling about girls who did him wrong, these guys are becoming all too predictable and just a little bit boring.

The brightest spots on “Heaven Is Whenever,” and there are a few of them, primarily come yet again from Craig Finn’s wonderful wordplay. That’s really the thing the band does best as well, because their melodies are so often (and rightly) compared to the barroom rock of American hero Bruce Springsteen. By now, a few albums in, we’ve gotten to know Finn relatively well, and whether the stories he tells via his lyrics are autobiographical or not, he seems to specialize in tales about girls that will break your heart in a million different ways. It’s a relatable problem, as are many of his platitudes. In the song “Soft in the Center,” Finn even goes so far as to utter the lines “I know what you’re goin’ through/I had to go through that too”, because apparently we weren’t already aware of that fact. Of course the same song also contains the brilliant lyrics “I know bodies of water freeze over/I’m from a place with lots of lakes/But sometimes they get soft in the center/The center is a dangerous place”, so I guess you could say it balances out. If you want to talk about home runs though, tracks that The Hold Steady absolutely crush, you can’t do much better than ballad “We Can Get Together,” a song about finding your (my) dream girl who just wants to sit on the floor and listen to records. There’s about a dozen references to bands and individual songs within this track, which includes Pavement, Meatloaf, Husker Du, The Psychedelic Furs, Heavenly and Utopia. It’s extremely well put together and also earns major points for being one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t get bogged down in extensive riffing (see: “Rock Problems”). Other notable good cuts on the album include “Barely Breathing,” “Hurricane J” and opener “The Sweet Part of the City”. The rest of the songs are merely okay, continuing to re-hash all the familiar points the band has covered these past several years.

In deciding whether or not “Heaven Is Whenever” is worth your time, I encourage you to consider just how much you love this band and their trademark mixture of big arena rock and highly intelligent wordplay. Franz Nicolay left the band because he felt that the guys were content with what they were already doing and didn’t want to push themselves creatively. That rings very much true on this album, and the question is are you like Nicolay and believe this sound has grown old and a little tired? I’m staying right in the middle on this one, as this new record both feels a little shaky but continues to keep me moderately interested thanks largely to Craig Finn’s witticisms. The guy continues to be prolific and brilliant, even when he’s talking about the same old subjects, and I’ll probably continue listening to this band just to hear what obscurely cool reference he pulls out of his lyrical hat next. Where does “Heaven Is Whenever” stand in The Hold Steady’s canon? That’s a difficult question to answer, especially since I wasn’t exactly high on the band’s last album “Stay Positive” either. “Separation Sunday” and “Boys and Girls in America” remain the gold standard for modern rock albums in my book, and their debut “Almost Killed Me” is…interesting to say the least. After this album though, my hope continues to be that The Hold Steady find a way to creatively evolve to the next level yet again. I’m not saying they need to throw out the elements that made them one of the more popular indie bands in existence today, but it’d be nice if they could mix it up just a little more than they currently are.

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