The Hold Steady are a band that, after 3 mildly successful but largely respected albums, seem comfortable with their music. A band you'd envision sitting contently amidst others in their shrinking genre without attempting to break out of any proverbial boxes or push any proverbial boundaries.
So with this, their fourth album, they seem to be aiming at sitting in exactly the same place only rather than trying to break outward, they've decided to soar upwards, away and beyond any of the other bands that they were once on par with.
From the first few seconds of Stay Positive you can feel the immediate sense of fun the band are having and are instantly whisked away to the world they're painting with their instruments and lyrics.
Album opener 'Constructive Summer' is swathed in catchy guitars and busy drums as they jovially play with the punk structure, whilst keeping the ideals of pop in mind.
Vocalist and lyricist Craig Finn has never sounded better or more mature for that matter as he dances around each song, narrating, singing and talking himself into spirals of gruff, angry verses and lighter choruses with nods to Bare Naked Ladies-esque pitching and timing.
Lyrically the album is denser than previous efforts with narration going further and deeper than before and this time, Finn wears his heart on his sleeve. 'I hope you'll still let me kiss you', he groans out on 'Magazines' whilst snare drums and faint guitars project his voice to the front of the track, ordering you to listen.
Album highlight 'One For The Cutters', dances around the fifteenth century era with green sleeves-like instrumentation and a constant, single guitar strum, whilst being held in at the seams by Finn's spot on narrative story telling.
We're then greeted by 'Navy Sheets' and its here you can really tell that Finn, and the entire band for that matter don't care what you think; they're here to have fun and lots of it.
Even when the album does quieten down to more piano led songs ala 'Lord, I'm Discouraged', it takes you with it, bringing you down off that ADHD tinged high to a calmer, folkier atmosphere where retrospective narrative is central, allowing the instruments to gently fold over the top of Finns unsure voice creating a shell for the words to sit snugly within....topped off naturally by a kick ass guitar solo.
Sweeping, picking and soaring through just over 40 minutes of guitar heavy musicianship, The Hold Steady are finally the force to be reckoned with that they half promised on their debut and do you know what? They sound a whole lot better for it.