Once Franz Nicolay left The Hold Steady in 2010, nothing was the same for the Brooklyn-based bar-rock institution. On their last album, the relatively low-key Heaven Is Whenever, the group attempted to compensate for the virtuosic keyboard player’s absence by leaning towards ponderous folk on their last album. The recent release of Teeth Dreams, four years after Nicolay threw in the towel, finds the band veering wildly in the opposite direction, emphasizing their hard rock side with the addition of a second lead guitarist, Lucero’s Steve Selvidge. The result is an oddity among the Hold Steady’s increasingly vast and varied discography—an album that favors brute instrumental force over lyrical tact and narrative.
Frontman Craig Finn remains a singular songwriter, but by abandoning the vivid, American mythos that The Hold Steady established on their previous records, Teeth Dreams is rendered a mere collection of pretty riffs and clever lines. In the past, Finn has anchored the characters of his songs in distinctly real places, such as Minneapolis’s Penetration Park or the City Center mall. On Teeth Dreams, however, his subjects merely float by, passing through nameless cities with little direction or urgency.
It doesn’t help the album’s disconnect from reality that producer Nick Raskulinecz, best known for his work with Foo Fighters, slathers the record in unnecessarily decadent polish, stripping The Hold Steady of any semblance of grit. In a display of serious lack of self-awareness, Raskulinecz also adds an unseemly amount of processing to Finn’s voice, only calling more attention to the fact that Finn will never be a great singer in the technical sense.
I suppose it’s admirable that The Hold Steady, now ten years into their existence as a band, are still experimenting with new aesthetics and methods of songwriting. Unfortunately for them, Teeth Dreams feels less like a bold step forward than a sonic and lyrical regression.