When was the last time a rock musician, in the prime of his career, went on record saying that he liked to go to church? It doesn’t happen often, but that’s exactly what Craig Finn of The Hold Steady told NPR a few months ago.
Finn was being interviewed on “Morning Edition” last July in support of the band’s new album titled “Stay Positive,” which was one of the most anxiously awaited of the year by Catholic and non-Catholic rock fans alike.
Secular rock critics wonder aloud if he’s going to go Christian rock on them. Catholic rock fans ponder if he’s going to be the Flannery O’Connor of rock music or just another guy hijacking the faith to get some publicity.
Numerous requests to interview Finn for this article received no response.
To be exact, Finn said that he liked going to church, even though he doesn’t go regularly but is starting to go more often. He described himself as religious not spiritual — an obvious reversal of the standard rock-star claim to be spiritual but not to believe in organized religion. Finn also told NPR that he is fascinated by people who are smart enough to make good decisions but continue to make bad ones.
The problem is that even though Finn’s songs are filled with Catholic themes of sin and redemption, his descriptions of those sins are so shocking that they overshadow everything else — including any artistic reason for being shocking. In contrast, O’Connor would use shocking acts of violence in her stories to illustrate God’s grace.
The Hold Steady’s second album, “Separation Sunday,” was released in 2005 and brought the group to national attention. It was a concept album about a “prodigal daughter” who was raised Catholic but falls into drugs and a destructive lifestyle before returning to her faith. At the end of the album, she goes to confession and then tells the priest at Easter Mass “how the Resurrection really feels.”
Instead of orchestral strings and angelic choirs driving home a tearjerker ending, it’s distorted guitars and Finn shouting, “she said don’t turn me on again [to drugs]. I’d probably just go and get myself all gone again.”
It’s creepy, but any listener who would be interested in the girl’s conversion would have probably tuned out long before the last song on the album. Like maybe the first line on the album, where she says she’s going to have to go with whoever can get her the most drugs.
Coming from a longhaired, ripped jean wearing, strung out rock star the lyrics would be cliché. But the disturbing phrases coming from the shirt-and-tie wearing, churchgoing, baseball-watching Finn is a dramatic contrast. The rock critics love it. After “Separation Sunday,” The Hold Steady landed on the cover of The Village Voice with a sidebar detailing the numerous Catholic references throughout the album.
Getting old quickly
There’s no law that says that rock music and Catholicism have to be at odds. Many musicians have been devout Catholics and great artists — just no one in the rock medium, yet. Finn is either trying to be the first or at least follow in the footsteps of his “catholic” rock forefathers: Phil Lynott of the 1970s classic guitar rock band Thin Lizzy, Paul Westerberg of the Midwestern punk band The Replacements and Bruce Springsteen.
Finn gets an A in music history for making those connections, but as long as he continues with the shock, the Catholic element of his writing will be overlooked.
The lyrics don’t make for great rock ‘n’ roll, either. Great albums and great bands are great because they still sound good after multiple listens. Shock gets old really quick. Hopefully, Finn will take his own advice from the title cut and “start to think big picture, because the kids at the shows will have kids of their own.”
This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor on October 26, 2008.