Photos of Tampa’s Ybor City neigborhood suggest nothing iconic, a generic pastiche along the lines of a Floridian Quincy Market. As refracted through three punch-drunk Hold Steady albums, however, its name has entered — along with other locales including a mysterious civic plot known only as “penetration park” — this century’s mythos of rock ‘n’ roll Americana. Not ones to mess with a winning (and utterly singular) formula, the band delivers a fourth collection of lapsed Catholics and quarter-life crises with Stay Positive: the first verse of the closer, “Slapped Actress,” insists, “Don’t tell them we were down in Ybor City again.” The second verse? “Don’t tell them Ybor City almost killed us again.” Newcomers to their antediluvian sing-along bar anthems (mostly upbeat) about first loves and hard drugs (mostly downers) might be surprised to learn that the Hold Steady are based in trend-stoked Brooklyn; like Joyce reimagining Dublin from Paris, front man Craig Finn likely needed an escape to the coast before he could realize his maximalist portraits of midwestern nihilism. Said coast may finally be exacting some erosion — perhaps the formula’s changed after all. After all, the best tracks here — “One for the Cutters” and “Joke About Jamaica” — feature expanded, minor-key soundscapes and flunkie character sketches refreshingly more jaundiced than anything on 2006’s Boys and Girl in America. (“When there weren’t any parties,” Finn yelps in indictment, “sometimes she partied with townies.”) Indeed, if that last album was in thrall, sonically and thematically, to early Springsteen, consider “Stay Positive,” for better or worse, neo–Billy Joel: still about the darknesses on the edge of town, but with one eye, at least, toward moving out.
About the Writer
Jonathan Liu is a reviewer and journalist who has written for The New York Observer, Gawker.com, and The Harvard Book Review.