When asked about the strength of “Boys and Girls in America,” the Hold Steady’s follow-up to 2005’s near-perfect “Separation Sunday,” guitarist Tad Kubler remarked, “This seems like it’s probably the most personal record I’ve ever heard Craig write lyrically.” Finn’s lyrical focus on his own life (as opposed to that of recurring characters Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne) has allowed him to paint more naturalistic portraits of high school kids getting drunk at prom, as opposed to the larger than life hard-partying personae on the Hold Steady’s earlier albums. At the same time, however, this downplaying of the grandiose nature of Finn’s lyrics makes them sometimes too simple and too normal.
Which is not to say that “Boys and Girls in America” has failed; on the contrary the album reaffirms the band’s place as the foremost indie revivalists of post-Zeppelin classic rock, and Finn as one of the foremost lyricists writing today. But compared to the poetic hodgepodge of literature, Catholicism and pop culture of “Separation Sunday” and 2004’s “Almost Killed Me,” the Hold Steady’s Vagrant debut falls short.
Finn’s desire to ditch the conceptual for the personal is not altogether unwise. For one, the American boys and girls are much more relatable for not being denizens of the roughest parties of Ybor City, whose “killer parties almost killed me,” as Finn proclaims in early Hold Steady songs like “Killer Parties.” The heroes of “Boys and Girls” aren’t legends whose reputations precede them — they could be anybody’s friends. This potential proximity makes the protagonist of “You Can Make Him Like You” as heartbreaking as any of Finn’s past heroes, without those characters’ Biblical re-enactments of man’s fall and redemption.
On the other hand, these are not working-class characters, and the Hold Steady has always aspired to be a working-class band. Their hatred of both scenesters and “clever people and their clever people parties” is extensively documented in Finn’s lyrics, yet Finn’s cultural references are hardly accessible except to the seemingly despised leisure class (and until recently the band recorded for Frenchkiss Records, an obscure New York label owned by Tim Harrington of art-punkers Les Savy Fav). “Chillout Tent,” the album’s only dud, is a “touching” story of straight-laced boy meets naive Bowdoin girl in the medical tent of a summer festival, after comparably light overdoses of some pill and mushrooms, respectively. The characters’ lines in the song, cheesily, are voiced not by Finn, but by friends of the band. Even Finn’s vocals are less compelling — he actually sings now, when he used to preach. Even the literary references are simplified (for example Kerouac instead of Nelson Algren); pop culture name-dropping has nearly disappeared.
Of course, disparaging by comparison to one of the best albums of 2005 is hardly fair criticism. Finn is as fond of alliteration, repeated phrases (especially charming couplets like “kisses/ …clicks and hisses”) and his other playful trademarks, and keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s riffs on Kubler’s relentless hooks are as undeniable, as ever. “Boys and Girls in America” is not another portrayal of hopeful burnouts hitting rock bottom and rebounding, and while the change is less cogent, the Hold Steady still pack a stronger punch than any of their indie-rock contemporaries.