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Wish That I Knew What I Know Now

Why the thirtysomething songwriters of the Hold Steady and the Mountain Goats can tell you just what it feels like to be a teenager.



The Hold Steady

Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss)

The Mountain Goats

The Sunset Tree (4AD)

Rock 'n' roll was born when adult songwriters learned to credibly imitate teenagers. Sure, there were other factors at play: by the late 50s Ike Turner, Wynonie Harris, and countless others had years of experience playing R & B, jump blues, or whatever else listeners called the licks, beats, and attitudes that were later commodified as the sound of young white America. And it took an otherworldly lust object like Elvis to crystallize teens' desires so perfectly. But it was only when teenagers recognized themselves in the crafty simulations of adolescence created by Chuck Berry, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and the journeyman tunesmiths of the Brill Building that rock evolved from a commercial fad to a seismic cultural shift.

Those 50s songwriters weren't far removed from their teen years, though--Leiber and Stoller were both 25 when "Yakety Yak," which they wrote for the Coasters, hit number one in 1958, and Chuck Berry was all of 27 when he wrote "Maybelline." Craig Finn and John Darnielle, the sharpest storytellers currently working in any pop music subgenre, aren't quite so youthful. Finn, the 33-year-old leader of the Hold Steady, already has a career behind him as the front man of the posthumously lauded Minneapolis band Lifter Puller; Darnielle, five years Finn's senior, spent the bulk of the 90s bellowing into his boom box to his own strummed accompaniment and peddling his solo work as the Mountain Goats. But as comparatively ancient as they are, on their newest discs both successfully reestablish contact with their teen selves. In the process they uncover the same lesson implicit in the birth of rock 'n' roll: adulthood and adolescence can only be understood in relation to each other.

The Hold Steady's Separation Sunday is a lively jumble of in-jokes, overheard rumors, and anecdotes that takes the rough shape of a conversion narrative about a teenage girl; The Sunset Tree, the second consecutive Mountain Goats album recorded with a full band, is Darnielle's memoir of a childhood spent terrorized by a bullying stepfather. They're very different coming-of-age stories, but they operate under the same assumption that adolescence is too often romanticized in pop culture, and that the only way to correct that is to embrace the worst of it whole hog. Even if he tried, Darnielle probably couldn't have treated his childhood with the same cold-eyed detachment with which he described the speed freaks he knew during his young adulthood on 2004's We Shall All Be Healed. Instead he burrows deep into the passions and fears of his younger self, who seeks refuge in AM radio, plays "video games in a drunken haze," and, on the string-laden "Dilaudid," implores his girlfriend Cathy to "kiss me with your mouth open."

Separation Sunday is equally brusque and unromantic, though there's no equivalent to Darnielle's late stepfather in it, or in fact any grown-up authority; as Finn has said in interviews, the songs on the album take place in a "Charlie Brown world," where adult voices are distant, irrelevant squawks. But both Finn and Darnielle maintain a strategic distance from their characters. Darnielle's singing is heartfelt, but his voice is rooted in the surety that comes with adulthood rather than the petulance of youth. And Finn steps back at times to make us aware that the hood rats, club kids, and other callow misfits populating Separation Sunday are rarely as decadent and jaded as they believe they are. By regularly shifting his point of view from observer to participant, Finn underscores the disconnection between his characters' world-weary talk and their desperate actions. The album's heroine, Hallelujah ("the kids all called her Holly"), may shrug and say "I won't be much for all this Humbert Humbert stuff" when an older dude shows an interest in her, but she's still earnestly searching for love among scumbags.

But writing from a knowing distance isn't enough by itself to make these albums work; they could easily have devolved to the rock equivalent of Daniel Stern's simpering voice-overs on The Wonder Years. Fortunately Finn and Darnielle have a gift for getting the story across without feeling compelled to tell it straight. Coming-of-age films often deal in overwrought "and that's when my life changed forever" epiphanies or idealized losses of virginity because they don't have many other plot points to work with. Adolescence isn't the stuff of narrative art; it's primarily a lyrical time. Pop music can render such highs and lows more accurately than most film and fiction because it can isolate emotions, not just plot points, and condense them into four-minute chunks. Separation Sunday and The Sunset Tree both work because their story cycles are composed not with conventional conflict-and-resolution plot mechanics but of emotional snapshots that work together impressionistically.

Not that Separation Sunday doesn't end with a bang. Tired of bad drugs and worse sex, Holly wants a happy ending, and Finn kindly obliges her: she strolls haggardly into an Easter mass and pleads her case to the congregation. If that feels abrupt and arbitrary, well, it is. Finn gives this story no more weight than any of the others he's sprinkled throughout the album: half-remembered Bible tales, urban legends about Rod Stewart, apocrypha about Holly's acquaintances' exploits. But he's up-front about the storytelling conventions he's playing with, and about how these stories are arranged. "Do you want me to tell it like boy meets girl and the rest is history? / Or do you want it like a murder mystery?" he asks near the beginning of the album in "Charlemagne in Sweatpants," then decides, "I'm gonna tell it like a comeback story."

In recent interviews Darnielle, who in the past has rejected the notion that his lyrics are autobiographical, has pointedly said that The Sunset Tree is inspired by his life experiences. So an implicit happy ending appears through the gloom: declarative statements of purpose like "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" resonate because we know that Darnielle did make it, and that it didn't kill him. At the same time he potently conveys the idea that he might not have made it, reflected in the way he anticipates his own mortality on "Song for Dennis Brown" and pauses on "Love Love Love" to recall how "young Kurt Cobain / Snuck out into the greenhouse / Put a bullet through his brain."

The kids of the rock 'n' roll era were able to forge their own mass culture; once they crept into their twenties and learned to articulate their own self-conscious ideas about growing up, rock was born. But rockers of the 60s generation also developed a monolithic idea of what it meant to be young; soon enough the humid reveries of Bruce Springsteen devolved into the crass backseat fumblings of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." Darnielle and Finn have opened up the way rock musicians can talk about teenagers. They'll hardly strike a chord with listeners as young as their albums' protagonists, but the palpable empathy with which they imitate teens--the way they rescue "youth culture" from scare quotes--offers a healthy model for how adults can draw sustenance from their younger selves without feeding vampirically on nostalgia. On the coda to "Stevie Nix," Finn alternates wistfully between "Lord, to be 17 forever," and "Lord, to be 33 forever." The way he sings it, each sentiment has equal weight. It's a wise move: the only way to know the difference between the two ages is to know the feeling of longing that connects them.

The Hold Steady, Red Eyed Legends, Foxtail

When: Thu 6/2, 9:30 PM

Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

Price: $8

Info: 773-726-3600 or 800-594-8499

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven Dewall.

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