I miss Franz Nicolay. That’s the thought I keep ending up at every time I find fault with Heaven is Whenever, the first Hold Steady album (fifth overall) to be released without the singer/pianist since the group’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me. Nicolay announced his departure from the band earlier this year. I try to fight this notion – Craig Finn is the main songwriter anyway! World/Inferno Friendship Society pianist Dan Neustadt handled the keys! Nicolay’s solo album wasn’t even all that great! – but I keep arriving at the same conclusion: this record needs more screaming, mustachioed guys.
Exhibit A: The music and vocals sound a little empty. It’s as if the band decided not to bother replacing Nicolay at all. The Hold Steady certainly uses a lot of chunky guitar riffs, but it was Nicolay’s piano that defined tunes like “Stevie Nix” and “Constructive Summer.” Even with Neustadt handling the ivories, the piano is noticeably absent from a lot of these new songs. Same goes for the back-up vox. Answer me this, rest of the world, which is more fun to sing: the chorus to “Chips Ahoy!”, or the backing “whoa”s? Choose wisely. Corinne Caouette and Roman Kuebler contribute backing vocals, but they can’t replace Franz.
Exhibit B: The songs are too slow. It’s like Nicolay took all the fun with him when he left. Heaven is Whenever lacks urgency. Part of it comes from a shift in Finn’s songwriting style. His lyrics are slightly more removed – you won’t find Holly or Charlemagne here – and his singing sounds oddly uninterested. It’s like he’s going through the motions, something that the line “If money didn’t matter then I might tell you something new” from “Soft in the Center” may or may not hint at. Quoth NOFX, “The desperation’s gone.” I know Finn likes singing about Youth of Today and (early) 7 Seconds, but Nicolay is the one with more punk cred, thanks to his work with W/IFS and Dresden Dolls. Sure, Major General was like 50 percent power ballads, but I can’t help but feel Nicolay would make sure fists were being adequately pumped during Heaven’s recording sessions.
Exhibit C: It’s a little overproduced. It's not relevant to my main argument but I still wanted to complain about it.
Heaven is the worst Hold Steady album. Yeah, it’s better than most of the music that’s going to come out this year, and some of the songs, like “Our Whole Lives” and “Rock Problems,” show that old spark. But it’s also indicative that the group’s formula – classic rock + literate lyrics worthy of Elvis Costello or John Darnielle – may be used up. Maybe it’s just a hiccup – Costello dropped a few middling albums between Get Happy!!! and King of America – or a transitional period into a slower, more contemplative period. Maybe it’s the beginning of the end for one of