Concert preview: Anxieties fuel the Hold Steady’s long-awaited new album Teeth Dreams

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From the January 30, 2014 edition

Pardon Hold Steady singer Craig Finn for feeling as though he’s living in two distinctly different eras at the moment.

Reached at home for a January phone interview, the frontman was simultaneously gearing up for the late-March release of the band’s long-in-the-works sixth album, Teeth Dreams, and prepping to play a series of February concerts celebrating the crew’s 10th anniversary.

“You’re excited about the new record, sure, but the anniversary also seemed like a fun thing to do,” said Finn, 42. “I think one of the narratives coming out is we’ve been around for a while. Not a lot of my favorite bands got to make six records, so there’s something to be said for that.”

In turn, the musicians have spent recent weeks immersing themselves in the Hold Steady’s sizeable back catalog, rehearsing songs that, for one reason or another, fell by the wayside over the years.

“The earlier songs all seem to come from a pretty jubilant place,” Finn said. “It was a thing where we were working jobs and then going to the rehearsal space after and drinking beer. We had such low aspirations and were having such a good time I think it became contagious, and there’s a spirit there those songs really capture.”

More recent albums, including Finn’s 2012 solo debut Clear Heart Full Eyes, have taken significantly darker turns, becoming increasingly populated with a range of broken characters trying to piece their lives together after the buzz has worn off.

“You could probably do anything if you could just get yourself right,” Finn sings tellingly on “Soft in the Center,” a grand, mid-tempo rocker off the group’s 2010 album Heaven Is Whenever.

“I think [the change] has a little bit to do with lifestyle. When we first started touring it was like, ‘We’re going to have a party tonight and a party tomorrow night,’ and then eventually it was like, ‘We can’t party anymore. It’s exhausting,’” Finn said. “I think there’s still some hopefulness in [the music] somewhere, but it’s certainly not all about throwing confetti in the air.”

This trend continues with the forthcoming Teeth Dreams, which Finn described as a “more guitar-driven album” deeply rooted in human anxieties (the title is a reference to both a passage from David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” and those all-too-common, anxiety-driven dreams where teeth crumble or shake loose from the skull).

“I met this doctor at a party and he said the biggest thing people come into his office for now is anxiety, and the New York Times has a column on anxiety, so it was like, ‘Are we living in this really anxious time?’” he said. “Then I was in Norway and went to the Munch Museum and saw the painting The Scream [by artist Edvard Munch], which deals with this anxiety brought on by encroaching industrialism, and I was like, ‘Maybe it’s just part of us. Maybe it’s this human condition.’”

The album recording sessions also marked the end of the longest hiatus the Hold Steady has taken since its formation — time, Finn said, necessary for the bandmates to recharge both physically and mentally. One downside of the extra months away? It disrupted the crew’s momentum, making it more of a challenge to get things rolling once the players were finally ready to return.

“It’s like if someone’s son or daughter comes home and says they’re taking a semester off of college and the parent is like, ‘You’re not going back. You don’t understand. Get it done. Keep the momentum going,’” Finn said. “It can be hard to crank things up again, and that’s part of why it took us a while to make this record.”

Photo by Danny Clinch