Over the course of three albums, America’s best bar band has penned modern-classic rock ’n’ roll odes to drinking, drugging and generally partying until one passes out. But they’ve also produced intimate portraits of the shady and shamed characters and physical, mental and even religious hangovers that come with the territory. With its latest, the five-piece retains its signature beer-brawl sound but mines its traditional subject matter even deeper, exploring what happens when the good times take decidedly darker turns.
Pedal-to-the-metal guitar, frenetic piano and fist-pumping, “Whoa-o-o!” choruses commandeer immediate attention, particularly the title track, “Constructive Summer,” “Yeah Sapphire” and “Sequestered in Memphis,” the last of which recounts a dalliance with a wanted woman. But slower, slightly psychedelic-tinged tracks hit harder lyrically. “Lord, I’m Discouraged” wrings its hands over a love interest embracing a downward spiral, the harpsichord-infused “One for the Cutters” tells of a co-ed caught up in a murder investigation, and the harrowing “Both Crosses” envisions the crime before it was committed. Even with a curious talk-box breakdown in “Joke About Jamaica,” the schizophrenic “Navy Sheets” is the sole out-and-out clunker, meandering without direction while shrill synths fluctuate like polygraph scratches.
This being a Hold Steady album, densely interconnected stories and self-references run rampant; faith both ruins and renews. Though violence, death and a sense of hopelessness loom, as Craig Finn & Co. defiantly remind, “We gotta stay positive,” and the music will work its magic.
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