The Hold Steady – Almost Killed Me

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ositive Jam, the first song on “Almost Killed Me”, sets the stage for the rest of the album by taking us on a walk through decades past - from the 1920s through 1990s and into the present day of the early 2000s - and reminds us that every era has its own counterculture living just outside the purview of polite mainstream society, cultures full of partiers, alcohol, drugs, music, hedonism, and nihilism. The modern day “indie kids” and “clever kids” are also reminded of this and then told to “hold steady”. Because despite the surface negativity, we are told that we are starting off on a positive jam. Set your perspectives accordingly.

Founded in 2003, The Hold Steady brought together elements of both classic and hard rock to create its own unique bar band sound full of crunchy guitar and content heavy lyrics. The fullness of the rest of the band, including the additions of soaring piano and even a sax solo on “Hostile, Mass”, invite the inevitable comparisons to early Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, as well as Thin Lizzy, The Band, AC/DC, REM, and a multitude of others, but The Hold Steady always felt original despite the obvious influences. Frontman Craig Finn ensures this. While the catchy guitar hooks and musical bravado are what initially catch your attention, it is the interesting and ambiguous lyrics that will keep you coming back, stories with enough concrete details to make them feel lived in but vague enough that you may see your own experiences in them, as well.

While not quite the concept album that their later works were to be, “Almost Killed Me” does showcase many of the repeated themes and characters for which the band would become known. We get a glimpse into the world of The Hold Steady; concerts and shows, bars and clubs, house parties and river camps, drug deals gone wrong and drug deals gone right, and the sordidness that can accompany these settings. We get to meet Hallelujah, Charlemagne, and Gideon for the first times, although their stories are not yet filled out for us, and we are left wondering who these people are and why they are crisscrossing America; from the Twin Cities to Massachusetts to Michigan to Ybor City and Pensacola, the setting of the album changes as abruptly as the mood. 

we are shown people living hard, trying to find a way to forget the ennui and despair of small town and small city life, but who are also looking for redemption

The characters live at the crossroads of party kids, pushers, musicians, gangsters, college kids, and townies, all bumping into each other across America while searching for something more. Thematically, we are shown people living hard, trying to find a way to forget the ennui and despair of small town and small city life, but who are also looking for redemption and a salvation from the situations they are in and the resulting guilt. And like the name of the album implies, there are near death misses and allusions to not so near misses by unnamed friends. “Almost Killed Me” feels like a modern day musical version of Kerouac’s “On the Road” or one long beat poem.

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