The Hold Steady makes full-blown albums. Not singles and filler, but straight-up rock records. Fans who rank the albums expect a lot—namely, that the next album exceeds the last. And though Heaven Is Whenever is solid, it's more side step than step up.
"Sweet Part of the City" begins like a slow thaw with acoustic slide guitars dripping with melancholy. Frontman Craig Finn sets the stage with lyrics of young people drifting together, drinking under a marquee from a liquor-spiked thermos. As the guitars fade, Finn—who believes strongly in community melded by music—incants, "We'd like to play for you." Here, The Hold Steady brings you to the precipice and I, for one, am ready to jump. Sadly, for the rest of Heaven, the moment passes.
Two other tracks, "The Weekender" and "Rock Problems," have the kind of butt-rocking, sing-a-long anthems one would expect. These songs should rule my "Back and Bi's" weightlifting mix, but they're too blunted and reined in. Love it or hate it, Finn's voice is what makes this band and it shouldn't be buried in a mid-rangey mix of big guitars and synthy background vocals.
Heaven Is Whenever is a slower, quieter album—less ardent. It's basically my third favorite.