I've seen a lot of live-streamed shows over the past year, but none have been stranger than the Hold Steady's early December gigs at the Brooklyn Bowl. As you'd expect, they were playing in an empty room. Well, physically empty. On the venue's many LCD screens were some of the band's diehard fans watching from their homes, sometimes singing along, almost always drinking, and definitely uncomfortable in the digital spotlight. It made for an undeniably eerie dynamic: an aging rock band playing to video screens in a vacant bowling alley. Fittingly, it's the kind of absurd and specific image that might appear in a Hold Steady song.
While the decision might have been a celebration of their famously devoted fanbase, it was also a shrewd business decision. By highlighting their fans, they incentivized purchasing the stream rather than waiting for it to wind up on YouTube inevitably. Their base's loyalty has allowed the band to make similarly savvy moves in the past few years. They've ditched touring and instead played multi-night stands in major cities. 2019's Thrashing Thru the Passion was released piecemeal, imploding the typical album release cycle. More recently, they've taken control of their recordings by establishing their own imprint, Positive Jams. "The music industry feels pretty broken, so I think it's a mistake to do everything in a traditional manner," the band's singer and songwriter, Craig Finn, said in 2019. "We already know where our fans are."
Finn understands his fans because he is, more than anything, a fan -- of the Replacements, Kiss, Joan Didion, the Twins. Throughout their two decades as a band, the Hold Steady have explored what devotion entails, what it means to be a fan. For so many of Finn's characters, being a fan of someone isn't the product of celebrity culture or crass commercialism; it's often beautiful, something like a religious experience. Their latest album, Open Door Policy, explores similar terrain. A woman needs to listen to "Wipeout" to come down on "Lanyards", a nurse has Van Halen's "Eruption" as her ringtone on "Family Farm", Kiss fans become crust punks on "Me & Magdalena". And, because it's a Hold Steady album, there are other kinds of devotion, too, though if you're familiar with the band, none of it will surprise you: Catholicism, addiction, partying.
There are some dalliances with elements outside of their fast and loud bar-rock, like the unexpectedly dancey "Unpleasant Breakfast" and the soulful "Riptown". Still, much of Open Door Policy sounds like Finn plugging into a well-worn formula. That's not all bad: "Family Farm" and "Heavy Covenant" are fun sing-a-longs that wouldn't have been out of place on the band's most popular records. As an album, though, Open Door Policy isn't very inspired. Finn's always been a limited vocalist, more "frontman" than "singer", but his storytelling and unique speak-sing delivery were so charming that it didn't matter. "The Feelers" and "The Prior Procedure" recycle cadences from earlier records, sounding like something Finn might've delivered in the aughts, but the songs lack the narratives and quotables that always made Finn's aversion to melody feel appropriate.
For some fans, even the appearance of something like Separation Sunday is a dream. They're playing the hits! If you're like me, though, you were hoping this band were headed for a long, complicated career, something beyond being America's Best Bar Band. In the world of Hold Steady fandom, 2010's Heaven Is Whenever is considered a low point for the band: it lacks Franz Nicolay, it's got some too-slick production, it sounds like a band worn out from the road. That's all true, but that record also found the band stretching beyond themselves. Finn made an earnest attempt at being not just a great frontman but a great singer; in the process, he produced some of the band's most infectious songs to date.
But the Hold Steady have made it clear that they're not interested in that kind of career. They know where their fans are, and they know what they want. Like the name of the album implies, it's hard to see Open Door Policy as more than just another clever business decision.