In “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac wrote “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” But, as we learn from the latest album from The Hold Steady, these sad times can make for great listening.
More than the title of the album, “Boys and Girls in America,” seems to have been borrowed from Kerouac. The songs are filled with stories from the fringes of society, told in an organized stream-of-conscious manner, with each word vital to the narrative as a whole.
Despite the familiar subject material—girls, getting drunk, getting high—and sound—straight-ahead, guitar-bass-drums rock ‘n’ roll—the record still feels surprisingly fresh.
The quick pace of the songs and the energetic guitar riffs would be appropriate at the next on-campus party but do not camouflage the serious tone of the lyrics, which would not seem out of place in the newest piece of teen-angst literature, if such literature were more literate.
The first song on the record, “Stuck Between Stations,” sets the tone. Big, direct, happy guitars buoy frontman Craig Finn’s tale of kids in Minnesota having sex, taking drugs, and getting dehydrated, making the night feel “stuck between stations / on the radio.”
But that’s not to say all the songs here are rockers; the requisite ballads are here too. Finn takes advantage of the slower tempos to use some heavier lyrics: “Citrus” recreates the meeting of Jesus and Judas at an alcohol-soaked high school party, while “First Night” repeats the phrase “Words alone never could save us.”
What, in Finn’s opinion, could actually save us is never made clear. The lack of clear answers is characteristic of the album, whether the question concerns girls, god, or painkillers.
“Chillout Tent” is the catchiest tune of the bunch, which is rather ironic considering that it is about drug overdoses. Yet the high-pitched female vocals, background piano, and the lyrics about young love—albeit in an illegal-substance-induced, together-in-the-hospital sort of way—disguise the stranger side of the love ’em and leave ’em experience.
“Boys and Girls in America” is an upbeat soundtrack for getting in trouble, about getting in trouble. By turning a poetic eye on subjects normally seen as low or trivial, The Hold Steady has created a document of what it’s like to be young and stupid in America. By setting this poetry to incongruously positive pub-rock, they have made it essential listening.