Craig Finn, lead singer and songwriter for Brooklyn's the Hold Steady, writes about drug addiction, casual sex, and Jesus. There's lots of debauchery as well as religious iconography in most of these songs.

On "Both Crosses," Finn mixes references to Judas, crucifixes, and Catholic girls, the themes of betrayal and seduction vying for supremacy with good old-fashioned guilt and a still-active conscience. These are the conundrums that haunt Finn—who grew up in a devout Catholic home—and the shadowy world he chronicles. They are also what make him great, and why his band might be playing the best and most important rock 'n roll in America. On the Hold Steady's fourth album, the recently released Stay Positive (4 stars), Finn is at it again, spinning his conflicted tales of dissolution and redemption. This time the party animals are older—not necessarily wiser, but certainly more desperate. There are casualties this time around, characters who have lived life at the edges of the world and have fallen off. The unending parties are tinged with a forlorn agitation, a hyperactive frenzy that tries unsuccessfully to mask the yawning abyss of another pointless night at the bar or in a stranger's bed. Surprisingly, movingly, these characters struggle for meaning. "Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger," one of them says, and it sounds like an sos broadcast to the heavens.

It's all accompanied by thunderous power chords, cascading piano lines straight out of the Bruce Springsteen catalog, and anthemic choruses that strive to make the Big Statement and, impossibly, do.

Springsteen, to whom Finn is often compared, wrote "Born to Run" as the archetypal paean to romantic love, a beat-up car, and the appeal of the open road. Finn's characters are too drunk to drive, but they're still running as fast as they can, unable to escape the Hound of Heaven. Finn is a barstool poet of the highest order, a rock 'n roll Jack Kerouac. And Stay Positive is a gritty, supremely uncomfortable masterpiece, a Christ-haunted work that finds glimmers of glory even in the gutter.

Andy Whitman, senior contributing editor for Paste magazine

Related Elsewhere:

The Hold Steady's website links to their new album and concert dates.

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