I would have never thought that the absence of a keyboard player would be so sorely felt, especially from a rock band. When a vocalist leaves, the voice of the band is altered and the strangeness puts an awkward distance between the audience and the band, until the audience reconnects with the old songs in a new way. Instrumentalists are more easily replaced, but their contribution to the songwriting and overall chemistry of the band can be just as identifiable. The Hold Steady has just released their fifth album, and it’s the first without keyboardist Franz Nicolay. The songs on Heaven Is Whenever are missing an element of strangeness, an almost out-of-place oddness that somehow fit nicely in with a given song and brought it to an interesting new presentation, and that strangeness was Nicolay’s contribution. He is as varied an artist as you can get, making music with gypsy punks and klezmer aficionados, as well as playing in The Hold Steady, so whenever a weird sound popped up in a Hold Steady song, I attributed it to him. A great example would be the song ‘This One’s For The Cutters’ off of the last album, Stay Positive, a rock song that prominently features a harpsichord.
The best moments of Heaven Is Whenever escape the history and expectations of the band’s previous work, but more often than not, the good parts of the new songs remind you of older, better Hold Steady songs. It’s growing on me, but it will take a lot to match its predecessors. 6 out of 10.