Song 148: The Hold Steady, “Constructive Summer” (2008)

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There aren’t many songs about summer that I think of as “summer songs.” I tend to be reminded of summer via musical memories, like riding around Cape Cod in my family’s 1984 Honda Civic to the sounds of Born in the U.S.A., or learning how to play the Violent Femmes’ “American Music” while sitting around at summer camp.

“Constructive Summer,” however, is the exception. The Hold Steady’s album Stay Positive came out in July 2008, and, being a rabid fan of the band, I waited for its release with much anticipation. When I first heard the first few measures of opening track “Constructive Summer,” I knew the record was going to be a winner, and that it would be the soundtrack to driving around in the godawful Minneapolis humidity.

Craig Finn writes about summer the way we thought about it as kids: as freedom. “Me and my friends are like/the drums on ‘Lust for Life’/we pound it out on floor toms/our psalms are sing-along songs.” Speaking of Springsteen, this song is very Boss-esque in the way it refers to a town’s working-class backbone as a kind of prison (“Work at the mill until you die/work at the mill and then you die”). The verse about school (“the walls were so gray that I couldn’t pay attention”) is essentially a rewrite of the first verse of Springsteen’s “No Surrender,” from Born in the U.S.A. (Another parallel: Finn sings that Joe Strummer “may have been our only decent teacher”; Springsteen’s song claims “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”) Not only is this song about summer, it seems to reference an album that I’ve always thought of as a summer record. You’ve got my number, Finn.

All of these comparisons aren’t meant as criticism: one of the Hold Steady’s greatest strengths is the way the band taps into our collective memories of FM radio. Their musical vocabulary is like a direct throughline to everybody’s memory, and their lyrics refer to people and events we remember, whether or not they’re just as we remember them. Their songs are about the way many of us spend, or spent, our lives.

In the case of “Constructive Summer,” we all remember the feeling of that last day of school, that relief of finally getting to do dumb shit with our friends out in the world. “Summer, grant us all the power,” sings Finn, “to drink on top of water towers.” Sounds just about perfect, doesn’t it?

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