When Franz Nicolay brought in a new song to a Hold Steady album session earlier this year, singer/songwriter Craig Finn relished the opportunity to make music again with the keyboardist (Nicolay had left the band in 2010 but returned in 2016).
“I immediately connected [with his song “Blackout Sam,”] and thought it felt like an epic in a way that an album might close with,” Finn says. “And obviously, by having him play piano and having him on the keyboards, there’s a depth and a sort of elegance that he brings to the band that we missed. And it’s really exciting to have him back.”
“Blackout Sam” marks the halfway point of the band’s recently released seventh album “Thrashing Thru the Passion.” It’s the first album to feature the six-piece lineup, which also features former Nicolay replacement Steve Selvidge. Finn considers it the best incarnation of the band to date.
“Now we’re kind of supercharged,” he says. “And so, it’s exciting, after realizing that and playing a bunch of live shows with this lineup, to go and make a record. It seems like we’ve got the best of all worlds happening.
“And I think by doing that, we were able to have a lot of fun. When I hear the record, I feel there is fun bubbling over, and I think people will probably hear it. We’re having a really good time and I think that’s reflected in the record.”
The songs on the first half of the record were recorded during a January session, while the second half features singles that the band had released digitally over the past few years.
“When we went in January, and we made these five new songs, they fit together so well, it immediately felt like A-side of an album,” Finn says. “So, it kind of was a eureka moment of ‘wow, this could be the first side of the album, these five songs.’”
After adding the singles, Finn says the disc “flowed really well, and it felt like a cohesive album.”
While it doesn’t have as strong of narrative as in the band’s previous efforts, the album follows a similar Hold Steady storytelling about “people getting off path a little bit.”
“I think these are ... vignettes that are somewhat more self-contained in some way,” Finn says. “But I think it’s the old Hold Steady, kind of the same theme of people having a good time and then feeling lousy afterwards.”
That’s clearly evident in songs such as the single, “You Did Good, Kid.”
“It’s a little bit sarcastic, the idea of someone who is maybe trying to reassure themselves that they’ve done okay,” Finn says. “Someone who might be closer to my age than younger, someone who’s lived half their life, and having regrets, slight regrets, and maybe getting into something over his head, but also trying to sort of calm themselves by repeating, ‘you did good, kid.’”
As for the album’s title, Finn says it its meanings are many.
“It alludes to being passionate about our songs, our music, of the people in the band. Also, the passion kind of an allusion to Christ and religious overtones that have appeared in our music since the beginning,” he says. “And then, ‘thrashing’ to me was maybe a little bit of a wink or a joke about thrash music. It made sense as a Hold Steady [title], a nod to just where we’re at right now.”
The band is excited to share their music during their Constructive Summer weekend residencies in Chicago, which include shows at Thalia Hall and The Empty Bottle. Some of the band’s (and Finn’s) earliest shows took place at the latter.
“I particularly love being there in the summer,” says Finn of Chicago. “Most of us are from the Midwest, and… even though we’ve lived out in New York for a long time, we have a very Midwestern sensibility and a great fan base in that region. So, it’s kind of always a perfect storm to play there, and it’s one of the cities I always looked forward to going to.”
These residencies allow the band to focus more on the music and less on the traveling.
“I think that’s brought a lot of extra energy to the band,” Finn says. “And I think it’s made the shows much more musical, and much more fun, and much more kind of focused on the community that’s around the band.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.