Judson Baker

All signs pointed to disappointment. Album number four from the Hold Steady was supposed to be a lot of things—more drunken bar rock from a band far too smart to still be slumming it after all these years, another avenue for Craig Finn to spin a yarn about bad luck characters and drinking gin from a jam jar, and more party rock from a band that looks more like substitute science teachers than they do musicians—but it was surely going to disappoint. The band's ragged blue-collar rock had all but run aground following 2006's Boy and Girls in America, a record that leaned a bit too heavily on the crutch of party jams. It was like Andrew W.K. for the bar rock set—and like all good parties, it got old after awhile.

But Stay Positive does not disappoint. Instead, the Brooklyn band (whose hearts, and baseball allegiances, still lie with their original home in the Twin Cities) have produced a flawless album so inspiring that it somehow finds a way to outshadow their illustrious—if not overly critically acclaimed—catalog. Bookended by a crescendo of "woah" vocals, the album is quick to pay tribute, not to the same old fictitious lot of bottom feeders that usually populate Finn's lyrics, but to Joe Strummer. "Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer/I think he might've been our only decent teacher." Finn's right. With all due respect to my high school teachers, I learned more about history—from "Spanish Bombs" and Andalucía, to "Washington Bullets" and the Sandinistas—from the Clash than I ever did in any classroom, which in itself is worthy of the man getting his unofficial posthumous canonization via raised pint glass.

Alongside the to-be-expected lyrical wonders of Finn ("Our psalms are sing-along songs"), Stay Positive shows initiative and ambition not generally associated with a band that might as well be the mid-'70s house band at the Stone Pony. With lyrics about "getting nailed against dumpsters, behind townie bars," the harpsichord-heavy "One for the Cutters" is the band's version of Pulp's "Common People"—a tale of the token rich girl partying with the cooler poor kids. But it's not judgmental, since if there's any lesson to be learned form Stay Positive, it's that the Hold Steady have a lot more partying to do.