As the keyboardist in the Hold Steady, Franz Nicolay serves as the Roy Bittan to Craig Finn's Springsteen, animating the singer's street parables with florid flourishes.
The Springsteen influence carries over into Nicolay's songs, both in the soul-searching street-opera narrative of "Nightratsong" and the overwrought delivery of "World/Inferno vs. the End of the Evening", a mannered reminiscence of high old times and high old flames. Catastrophic romance is a theme, most explicitly in "Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova", where serial failure leaves Nicolay acknowledging, "But what do I know about love except love songs?". The most poignant of these musings is "Cease-Fire, Or, Mrs. Norman Maine", a song about trying to reignite a love-hate relationship from long ago. Musically, the album relies mainly on brash rockers in E Street Band/Hold Steady style, interspersed with subtler treatments such as the jazz-guitar arrangement of "Do We Not Live in Dreams?". But Nicolay's not a natural vocalist, – a shortcoming which, combined with his taste for flamboyant arrangements, lends a David Ackles-esque quality to his rumination on gentrification, "Dead Sailors".
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