On the Hold Steady's fourth studio album, enough of the band's trademarks are in place to suggest cohesion and consistency--the beery, unapologetically classic-rock emotionalism, the crunchy riffage and ascending hooks, the angsty poetry of the lyrics. At the same time, an unprecedented intensity and new enthusiasm for sonic exploration (aided by Jim Agnello's expansive production) stave off any hint that the band was headed for a rut.
Longtime listeners will relish the many moments when STAY POSITIVE veers off formula. And veer it does. "One for the Cutters" waltzes blearily between acid jazz and stately prog, with a haunting harpsichord motif. The lilting, rootsy ballad "Lord, I'm Discouraged," finds Craig Finn all but abandoning his usual sing-speak style for something more subtle. "Navy Sheets," possibly the heaviest thing the group has recorded, snarls in both senses of the word, with a labyrinthine melody and Finn's palpably disgusted vocal. The pounding new wave heraldry of the title song is the kind of thing that earned Graham Parker and Tom Robinson the "angry young man" tag 30 years ago. That the Hold Steady can breathe new life into that template is a testament to their biggest strength: the ability to maintain a forward-looking stance while acknowledging the influences of the past, and holding steady in the middle.
Rolling Stone (p.94) - Ranked #36 in Rolling Stone's 50 Best Albums Of 2008 -- "Brooklyn's finest bar band delivers an empathetic portrait of midlevel rockers in their 30s..."
Spin (p.100) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "'Constructive Summer' is the sort of people-powered anthem that made them 2005's can't miss band, and the title track meshes Finn's superspecific lyrics with echoes of Randy Newman's 'I Love L.A.'"
Entertainment Weekly (p.p.64) - "[With] Finn's drolly rendered vocals and weird storytelling, which make the Hold Steady something you're certain you've never heard before." -- Grade: A
CMJ - "Horn sections, intricately plucked guitar arpeggios, Cars-worthy synthesizer squelches and even a talk-box guitar solo all make an appearance..."
Kerrang (Magazine) (p.50) - "The Hold Steady have style and confidence to spare here, with the title-track even carrying a nod to their hardcore roots..."
Q (Magazine) (p.131) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[A] real craft and dexterity is at work within The Hold Steady's songs, and on this record such things are plentiful in evidence....In Craig Finn The Hold Steady also have a properly great lyricist."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.100) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[W]ith STAY POSITIVE, The Hold Steady have intensified the precepts of their songs: the rockers are more rocking, the slow burns more brooding....The performances are both looser and more pointed..."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.72) - Ranked #6 in Mojo's "The 50 Best Albums Of 2008" -- "The Minneapolis via New York quintet became chart stars..."
Paste (magazine) (p.78) - "[T]hey've built upon the same monstrous guitar riffs, lyrical witticisms and Springsteeny rock chug they've purveyed since day one, upping the stakes with bigger choruses, even more self-referential/clever lyrical nuggets, and an everyman aesthetic..."