Certain Songs #607: The Hold Steady – “The Sweet Part of The City”

Hold steady - heaven is whenever Album: Heaven is Whenever
Year: 2010

The difficult fifth album. It’s tripped up more than one great band. You start your career with four absolute winners in a row, but while it’s only cool and logical to wanna mix things up, you get too far away from your strengths for your own good.

It happened to the Ramones with End of the Century. It happened to X on Ain’t Love Grand. It happened to Pavement with Terror Twilight. And it happened to The Hold Steady with Heaven is Whenever.

The culprit, I think, was the production, which was simultaneously too thin and too overburdened, like they couldn’t figure out how to fill the space that used to be taken by the departed Franz Nicolay’s keyboards.

I enjoyed nearly all of the songs, but I loved very few of them.

And the only absolute winner was the opening, “The Sweet Part of The City,” which fades in with gently keening slide guitars and wafts gently as Craig Finn reminisces about living in what a friend of my once called “the cool part of town.”

We were living it
We delivered it
We didn’t feel a thing
We were living in

The sweet part of the city (ooooooh)
The parts with the bars and restaurants (ooooh)
We used to meet underneath the marquees
We used to nod off in the matinees

It’s slow and gentle, and while there isn’t a crunchy guitar in sight, there are loads and loads of spooky noises and sleigh bells and descending guitar riffs. It probably shouldn’t work, but it’s absolutely lovely.

And I remember being so thrilled by this song when I first heard it: it wasn’t like any other Hold Steady song I’d ever heard, and yet it felt exactly like them. Of course, that was partly because of the words, which ended with a prototypical Craig Finn lyric.

It’s a long way from Cedar-Riverside to Cedars-Sinai
Three times St. Paul to Cheyenne
And it’s a long way from Sacramento, too
We were bored, so we started a band

We like to play for you
We like to pray for you
We like to pray for you
We like to play for you

It’s a near-perfect way to start an album, and it probably amplified my disappointment — which I should point out is relative, not absolute — with the rest of Heaven is Whenever, which despite things like the chorus of “The Weekenders,” the lyrics of “Heaven is Whenever” and the massive ending of “A Slight Discomfort,” never had a song that gelled quite as well.

“The Sweet Part of The City” performed live in 2010

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