“So maybe [anxiety]’s just a part of who we all are, and always were. My worry now, though, is that we are starting to nurture these neuroses of ours, and treating them like pets. That can’t be a good thing.” –Craig Finn, in The Independent
I don’t often remember my dreams, yet for some reason, I still have a fairly vivid memory of a dream I had a couple years ago—in that dream, my teeth were falling out. As I later learned, dreams about teeth are normally assumed to reveal anxiety about money, relationships, and, well, just about anything. For me, the dream fell into the “anxiety about everything” category, a place I’m sure we all find ourselves occupying at some point in this life. Craig Finn, lead singer of The Hold Steady, seems intimately acquainted with neurotic territory and takes up the complicated task of making anxiety rock with the band’s newest record, Teeth Dreams. Yet, while Finn’s lyrics examine humanity’s dark recesses, the band sounds re-energized, returning to the swaggering bar rock that suits them best.
Terror and anxiety permeate almost every track on Teeth Dreams, beginning with the lead single and first track “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You.” In between intertwining guitar lines (courtesy of Tad Kubler and new guitarist Steve Selvidge), Finn spits out lyrics addressing fear of past relationships and mistakes coming back to haunt us in the present: “So, when I brought you back here for Christmas, I didn’t think we’d see them/ I guess I should have explained…I hope this whole thing didn’t frighten you, there were times that it terrified me.” On “Almost Everything,” an acoustic charmer where Finn actually sings, the terror returns after rehab, during movies, and, of course, late at night: “Yeah, there are nights I get terrified/ I’m sure you get terrified too.” Teeth Dreams, more than any other Hold Steady album, dwells on this universal anxiety through both Finn’s searching lyrics and the band’s jittery music.
Somber verses give way to a driving chorus in “The Only Thing,” as Finn tries to come to terms with a break-up: “Sure she’s with you, but first she was with me/ I’ve been trying to get in touch with her/ Last night her teeth were in my dreams.” Heart-pounding drums and pulsing bass underscore Finn’s confession in the chorus; it’s that same feeling I get when I can’t even find respite from my neuroses in my sleep. Yet, when we awake, the sadness often remains, as the rip-roaring “On with the Business” reminds us, a full bore rocker with swirling guitar riffs and Finn’s trademark snarl on full display. Partially inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, “On with the Business” takes aim at materialism and the mental instability it can cause: “Waking up with that American sadness…so many choices, decisions, decisions.”
Equally unstable is the protagonist of “Big Cig,” a woman who started smoking when she was seven–even if Finn spends most of the song boasting about her confidence. The dueling guitars of Kubler and Selvidge lend an antagonistic feel to the song, as if the swagger will mask the dark undercurrents of life. Not so, as near the end of the song, Finn subtly slips in this line, “Her therapist says it’s dangerous the way she seeks validation.” Finn’s characters have a long legacy of looking for validation in dangerous places and things; on the earlier albums, they tried to find their identities in drugs and alcohol, but on the more recent Hold Steady albums, Finn’s cast seems to be turning towards relationships and materialism to fill the void. “Collecting boyfriends isn’t such a healthy hobby,” Finn sneers on “Wait a While,” and it serves as a reminder that we all have our “hobbies” that we use to project a well-adjusted façade out to the world.
Teeth Dreams wouldn’t truly be a Hold Steady album without some insight into where redemption might be found in the midst of our identity management and anxious searching for validation. The first glimpse comes during “Spinners,” a song consumed with the very act of maintaining an appropriate identity. In “Spinners,” a small town girl has moved to the “big city,” and spends her every night going out to clubs and bars, trying to make herself into a new person suited for this urban lifestyle. The circular guitar riffs reinforce the cyclical nature of her attempts to live into this new image she has fashioned for herself. Then the bridge hits, and Finn sings: “Once you’re out there, everything’s possible/ There might be a fight, there might be a miracle/ Loosen your grip, it feels so incredible.” The first step, and always the hardest, is a loosening of the hard, fast grip we have on ourselves and who we think we are. There will definitely be a fight.
Then, a miracle. On “Oaks,” the album’s nine-minute closing track, all is stripped away, leaving the fractured, broken self, deeply aware of the impossibility of constructing a flawless, impenetrable identity. Slowly, over the course of a ride through the city, “Oaks” transforms this source of ultimate anxiety into a vision of something else, a place where “we dream” and “we hope.” It is here, at the point of utter exhaustion, regardless of how we’ve arrived, that the music kicks in, a wall of noise, curling crescendos and arching arpeggios; we’ve crossed over into another place, at least for a moment, where all the posturing and self-curating ends, a place beyond words and ‘selves’ where something more akin to real identity might be found. Which is a beautiful note to end on, especially since, left to our own devices, we’ll just keep dreaming of teeth.