Once disdained by rebellious young trendies as the uncool epitome of bloated American stadium-rock, there are signs that the operatic bombast of Bruce Springsteen's early albums has come full circle back into youthful favour. There was last year's transformation of The Killers into a Springsteen tribute band on their second album, and now the hottest prospect in US rock, judging by year-end tips in the American and British media, offer on this breakthrough album a Boss impression accurate enough to be on Dead Ringers. From subject matter to vocal delivery, Boys and Girls in America sounds as if someone has found a way of tracing The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle on to a more contemporary urban landscape.
The Hold Steady front man Craig Finn's songs offer depictions of lovers, losers, wasters and dopers in teenage wasteland America, in a candid, unashamed manner that's more Larry Clark than Richard Linklater. This is surely the druggiest album made this century, with almost every song either celebrating teenage drug culture, as in "Massive Nights", detailing individual drug habits, as in "First Night" and "Some Kooks", or setting up stealthy assignations to score drugs, as in "Southtown Girls". You might think such a singular focus would quickly grow boring, but Finn's literate, intelligent lyrics unfailingly search out fascinating angles and thoughtful observations on the subject. "Party Pit", for instance, finds the college-bound narrator worrying about a friend who became mired in dissolution, "pinned down at the party pit".
Finn has a keen appreciation of the highs and lows of drug culture. On the more benign side, "Chillout Tent" offers a sweet portrait of two overdosing teenagers at a festival, who briefly meet and snog in the chill-out tent, surrounded by nurses and comatose kids, before going their own ways, never to meet again. But there's a sinister, paranoid undertow to drug-scoring songs like "Southtown Girl" and "Citrus". Though whatever angle the song comes from, Finn manages to treat it with an ambivalent humour. "Hot Soft Light", for example, could be either an account of a lost weekend, or an apology to a drug counsellor
Musically, The Hold Steady specialise in surging, euphoric rockers, with big guitar riffs and organ frills. Variety is furnished by the slow, reflective ballad "First Night" and by wan accordion of "Citrus". But as with the drug lifestyle it depicts, the momentum never seems to let up throughout Boys and Girls in America, the party album of its era in more ways than one.
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