I never got around to posting all my reviews from The Stylus Decade here, did I? Well, considering I just posted up the Greatest Easter Song Of All Time, I might as well post my write-up of the sort of Easter-themed album it came from, Separation Sunday, by the Hold Steady.
Upon the release of Separation Sunday’s follow-up, Boys and Girls in America, the Hold Steady’s new label Vagrant made available for download a podcast of Craig Finn talking about a few of his favorite songs growing up in Minneapolis. These tunes, by bands like the Replacements, Bad Brains, Soul Asylum, Gorilla Biscuits, and the Descendents don’t usually come up much when critics discuss this band’s influences, but there’s as much of those lurking in the sound of Separation Sunday as there is the more obvious bar band touchstones.
That ‘80s punk sound is sewn throughout Craig Finn’s lyrics, of course. While first album …Almost Killed Me was soundtracked by “Only the Good Die Young” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” the follow-up was soaked in the scene: “She’s got those Bones Brigade videos,” Finn shouts on the opening track, in reference to Halleluiah a.k.a. Holly, the album’s subject, muse and ingénue (“She knew it back and forth/She slept with so many skaters”).
If Separation Sunday is about a scene, then it must be about a town as well, and that town is the icy Minnesotan burgh of Minneapolis-St. Paul. “When we hit the Twin Cities, I didn’t know that much about it,” says Finn in “Stevie Nix,” but he knew “Mary Tyler Moore, and Profane Existence” (that’s a local hardcore zine, not a religious state), and he knew enough to set his story’s action in bars like the Thunderbird, local pick-up haunts like Loring a.k.a Penetration Park, and make reference to specific suburban addresses like “Nicollet and 66th.” It sounds like a wild time, but though these parties start lovely, they get druggy, and they get ugly, and they get bloody, and the album’s story proper centers around little hoodrat Holly’s hallucinogenic baptism down by the Mississippi River; it relates how a Catholic girl with religious text tattooed into her skin, who’s going through “real hard times” with “some not sweet friends,” winds up gatecrashing a church and instructing a congregation as to “How a Resurrection Really Feels.”
If that all sounds a bit confusing, perhaps it’s meant to be; you could construct an encyclopedia from Finn’s rich references to rock ‘n’ roll lore, Twin Cities trivia, and biblical doctrine. But its sprawling, ambitious narrative is held together through staples as classic as bread and wine: Tad Kubler’s pounding guitar riffs, Franz Nikolai’s E-Street pianos and ecclesiastic organ swells, and a smart turn of phrase in every second couplet: “She got screwed up by religion/She got screwed by soccer players”; “I’ve laid beneath my lovers, but I’ve never gotten laid”; “You remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young/You’re passionate, you think that you’re sexy, and all the punks think that you’re dumb.” At the forefront of a wave of punk-derived, classic rock revivalists, Separation Sunday was the sound of a scene getting born again. Amen.