Saturday, 24 May 2008

Risking Prosecution to Bring Y'all - THE BEST SONG OFF THE NEW HOLD STEADY ALBUM - 'Slapped Actress'

Despite liking the first single, 'Sequestered in Memphis' (download here!), I was preparing myself to be disappointed when the whole album leaked a few days later. But after a few listens, I'm preparing myself to become minorly obsessed with Stay Positive. Musically, it absolutely does depart from Boys and Girls in America (there's even a bloody harpsichord on 'One for the Cutters'), and lyrically I think it's certainly complex - there's a lot more to it than girls and boys and bars and drugs and alcohol. One thing that struck me anyway is how strongly the album finishes. It's certainly not what you would call front-loaded. Indeed, the very best, imho, is saved to the very last, with final track and album highlight, 'Slapped Actress':

mp3:The Hold Steady - Slapped Actress REMOVED AT RECORD COMPANY'S REQUEST.
(from Stay Positive, out 14 July)

Maybe the record label will ask me to remove this (or maybe my blog isn't famous enough for them to notice...) but if it's available, download it, and above all, please buy the album and go see them live. I'm posting this song because it's brilliant, and so as to pique your collective interest in a band that really deserve it. That's one disclaimer. Here's another: if I sound unbearably pretentious when talking about this song, or if I sound just plain wrong - well, whatever dude... I'm not saying that this is what Craig Finn is thinking, these are just my thoughts. I kinda admire the belief that once a piece of 'art' - song, poem, movie, play, novel, painting, whatever - is in the public domain, it's unavoidably a part of the world and anyone is free to assign it any (subjective) 'meaning' they want.

Well - this song is arguably the culmination of The Hold Steady's career thusfar. It's certainly a song concerned with being in a band, and explicitly with being in The Hold Steady, as with much of the rest of the album (see the title track for example, where Finn seems bitterly aware of the band's difference in age from the 'boys and girls in America': numerous lines beginning with "There's gonna come a time when", including one about a band: "the kids at their shows will have kids of their own"). Here, however, the incitation to "stay positive" seems more assured. By the end of the song, where the "woah" bits take over, they've graduated from being "the actors": "We are the directors / Our hands will hold steady" - ooh look, it's like THEIR NAME...

There's a whole line of theatrical imagery throughout the song, which they associate with their own profession, and a little bit of the old religious language too ("They're holding their hands out / For the body and blood now" - 'they' seemingly being the fans...eek). The first two stanzas ("Don't tell...") convey some kind of shame about the truth. In the chorus though, they seem to embrace their roles as performers, players, providers of artifice: "We are the actors". On the other hand though, sometimes artifice goes wrong: although "Some nights it's just entertainment", at other times "fake fights turn out bad". In the end, I read the final lyric - "Man, we make our own movies" - as an acceptance of artifice - good, bad or neutral - as an unavoidable part of life. Maybe that's too neat and simplistic, but again - whatever dude...

The sense of both art (in the broadest sense of the word) and religion as things of artifice, and of completely uncertainty, unquantifiable in material terms, impossible to 'prove', makes me think of this amazing quotation from John Ashbery. Also see this article for a link between The Hold Steady and Ashbery. Again, I'm not saying that this is what the song is objectively 'about', because I don't think there's such thing as 'objective meaning' in a song or poem or whatever. Regardless, this a great thought eloquently expressed:

“Most reckless things are beautiful in some way and recklessness is what makes experimental art so beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing…I feel this in the work of great modern painters such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. Everyone acknowledges them now as being major artists, and yet, does their work amount to anything? There’s a possibility that it doesn’t, although I believe in it and want it to exist. But I think that part of the strength of their art, in fact, is this doubt as to whether it may be there at all.”

(discovered on this ceaselessly brilliant blog)

Well, that was rambling, pretentious, and at times probably nonsensical - but interesting?? maybe. Regardless, awesome tune :)

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