(Note: I meant to do this almost two weeks ago. Sorry it's so late)
When I listen to a Hold Stead record, I expect three things. First, I expect to hear lead singer Craig Finn's deep gravely voice singing life into party-goers and drug dealers in a way that makes them sound like stand up characters even though they're screwing each other and screwing each other over in every song. Heaven is Whenever continues to deliver here. Familiar characters make returns (I'm pretty sure "The Weekenders" is about the girl from "Chips Ahoy" but that may be a mis-read on my part) and new ones pop in like the band that gets started in album opener "The Sweet Part of the City".
The Second thing I expect on a Hold Steady record is some sweet keyboard/accordion parts being plated by Franz Nicolay. This record is sorely lacking in this department as Franz Nicolay has departed to do his own thing. The good news is that the band doesn't fall over without him. There are still keyboard/piano parts aplenty on this record and they add to the sound, but they don't make songs like the used to, especially tracks like "One for the Cutters" on 2008's "Stay Positive". The band has embraced a few new sounds on this album though, possibly to make up for Nicolay's absence, possible for no reason at all, and the most prominent example of this is the albums opening slide guitar riff from "Sweet Part of the City". It's nice to hear a bit of a change in the sound of a band that's been running things fairly consistently for the last couple of albums.
The Third thing I expect is some extremely heavy and creative guitar riffs from lead guitarist Tadd Kubler and here is where this album really kicks my expectations in the pants. Without Franz Nicolay to steal the spotlight, Tad's guitar playing rips right through this record's sound. From heavy tracks like "The Smidge" to my personal favourite track on the album "The Weekenders", the guitar becomes much more of the focus of the sound of the band, and I feel it's a welcome change.
There's another thing I always expect from a Hold Steady album that I don't like to mention though. That is a slow number somewhere in the middle that doesn't quite flow right. 2006's "Boys and Girls in America" had "First Night", "Stay Positive" had "Lord I'm Discouraged" (which is probably their best shot at it), and this album has "We Can Get Together", a song which has a lot of great moments but unfortunately doesn't fit together quite right. It's not something against the sound of the album but it is a speed bump on the road to what might have been an incredible album otherwise.
I also feel like I'm bashing on endings with most of these reviews I've been writing but the ending of this album is very drawn out and I don't really like it. It may just be my personal preference but when "A Slight Discomfort" ends with the same chords, wash of sound, and one repeated drum fill for two and a half minutes, I can't help but wonder if the band could have done something a little more creative or concise.
I like this album a lot, but in the scheme of all The Hold Steady albums I've heard, this one drops in just below "Boys and Girls in America" and well below "Stay Positive". It's good but I hope the band can find some smoother flow for their next album.