I once tried–and wisely abandoned–writing an essay that I thought could really blow some minds. Some half-baked treatise on spirituality and writers associated with Minnesota’s Twin Cities, and not just the novelists and poets, but the Princes and Paul Westerbergs as well. I had this whole grand idea that there was some sort of connection, some sort of deep longing that they all explore in their work that could be connected to the harsh winters or the close proximity to the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka. Some used sex or drugs, while others drank lots of cheap beer and covered classic rock songs until they threw up or passed out, but there was enough there to make me think that, no matter what their religious background really was, there was enough self-abuse as an attempt to find a small slice of redemption evident either in the real lives or the lyrics and prose. That if you listen to enough music or read enough books created by novelists and songwriters from the Twin Cities, that no matter what religious background they came from, there is a very Catholic feel to so much of the stuff that comes out of there.
I guess I should point out a few things, namely that I am neither Catholic or from Minneapolis. I am Jewish and from Chicago, and I was also heavily under the influence of the album Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady when I took my deep dive into exploring Fitzgerald’s short stories and John Berryman (who wasn’t born anywhere near Minneapolis, but is synonymous with the city since he taught and killed himself there) for quotes to help prove my point. In fact, I’d probably go as far as to say that it was that album, the most contemporary entry into the Twin City Catholic canon, that influenced me wanting to write the damn thing that I spent too many hours on. Listening to it over and over was what led me to begin really thinking about all this.
By the time Separation Sunday came out a decade ago (as of May 3), I’d been listening to Craig Finn since his time in the band Lifter Puller. I expected songs filled with characters, places, and situations Finn had visited in previous songs, namely people screwing up, screwed up situations, shady dudes, and weird parties, but I wasn’t expecting some big concept album filled with punks and Catholicism. I wasn’t expecting a bar rock update on Zen Arcade, another punk rock concept album from a Twin Cities band that explored somewhat similar themes and people, 21 years before Separation Sunday. While The Hold Steady might have more in common in terms of riffage with The Replacemets, the stories of kids in undesirable situations and spirituality that Mould and Grant explored two decades earlier was something that I can only assume influenced Finn a great deal.
I would have been more excited for that kind of thing during any other point in my life, but when Separation Sunday was released, I was going through one of the more uncomfortable periods in my life: I’d been living in New York for two years and had little to show for it, save for a big credit card bill and a tiny scar on my arm that I joked was my Germs Burn, but was really from when I leaned up against the hot espresso machine wand at one of my many coffee shop jobs. Everything felt awkward, and, if I’m making a confession here, so did that second Hold Steady record. Its fixation on religion gnawed at me since I was in an “I believe in nothing” phase, and after the few listens I give to bands I like who put out questionable albums, I realized it had nothing to do with the music or the lyrics: my disappointment was totally on me, and my own shit.
In May of 2005 I was living in a rent-controlled apartment that overlooked the BQE. I played a game where I’d count roaches scattering up the wall next to my bed until I fell asleep some nights, and passed out drunk the others. I was wasting away by choice and I thought a lot about the middle of the country, where I’m originally from. I didn’t really like living there, but it just felt so much easier than New York. People have time for things in the Midwest, there’s space to stretch out your arms there; you spend 20 bucks every time you walk out the door in New York City, and you can’t take a breath without bumping into another person. Yet I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t give up on Brooklyn. I kept telling myself I had to have faith, and that sooner or later things would get better. I felt like Finn, a fellow Midwesterner self-exiled to Brooklyn, understood that.
Everything felt awkward, and, if I’m making a confession here, so did that second Hold Steady record.
I’d also been going through a strong new relationship with literature written by Catholics at the same time, somewhat inadvertently. I’d recently reread Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and was so entranced by this book I swore I hated in high school, that I read it again. I took a trip down south with only a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories as my company, and picked up a Graham Greene novel for the first time. I read all of these books within a four month period, and probably wouldn’t have thought much of it had I not stumbled upon an essay on the Catholic faith and 20th century literature, and mentioned all three of those writers. I read more from each to try and capture the true essence of what they all had in common besides a shared religion, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew I liked all of their works. It was when I listened to Separation Sunday that began to truly appreciate how, despite my own skeptical stance towards religion, including the one I was brought up in, Catholicism brought out something I liked in religion.
The first time I ever went into a Catholic church was for a baptism. I just remember all gold and marble and eerie quiet as we sat in our pew. My family dressed up, but we were underdressed, or we just looked different, I can’t be sure now. But I was a kid, it didn’t much matter; and besides, I was too busy loving my new surroundings. I liked the Catholic Church more than the synagogues I grew up attending, which were drab and dusty, and regularly interrupted by gossiping. The church made me feel welcomed until my mother leaned in and whispered in my ear, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” I was old enough to recognize the Monty Python quote, and also old enough to know about the Spanish Inquisition. I was old enough to realize I didn’t really belong in that church.
Separation Sunday came out during a time in my life when everything felt like an absolute crisis; I was having dreams of being trapped in that church, and the last thing I felt like I needed was an album packed with Catholic symbolism mixed up with stories of fucked up punk teens and references to Profane Existence and Bones Brigade videos. I also missed the Midwest and the kinds of people Finn wrote songs about, despite the fact that I burned those bridges after they ripped me off for rent money.
The more I listened, the more I realized that Finn knew all those people he was singing about, or at least he created composites of people from the past, and inserted himself into the story as the narrator. With Separation Sunday, Finn accomplishes the rare feat of writing an album that sounds like it’s a novel. You get emotionally invested in Holly’s highs and lows, and you start thinking about all the people like Holly in your life you might know. It’s the type of trick Blake Schwarzenbach pulls off in a song like “Boxcar”; she’s not a punk, because she’s cooler than that. You don’t really hear much about his friend Boxcar, and the song’s chorus might distract you, but her brief appearance makes her hard to forget in the canon of punk and indie rock characters populated by the work of John Darnielle or Aaron Cometbus. You have to listen to Separation Sunday all the way through, because while there are great individual tracks, you want to hear the whole story.
Finn doesn’t look down on where he came from and isn’t judgmental about his characters. He practices charity with them. They’re all flawed people; a lot of them are addicts, and they do a lot of bad things to themselves and the people around them. They keep fucking up and fucking each other over, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel—or at least they hope there is. Holly moves around and nothing seems to work wherever she is. There’s the toxic and possibly abusive relationship with Charlemagne (who we meet a few times on the band’s previous album), various saints or cities named after them that hold some sort of meaning in her life (“St. Louis had enslaved me. I guess Santa Ana saved me. And St. Peter had me on the queue. The St. Paul Saint they waved me through”), lots of killer parties, and drugs. There are different ways to interpret lyrics (Is he talking about drugs or punk when he sings about how “heavy stuff ain’t its heaviest by the time it gets out to suburban Minneapolis”?); Paddy from Dillinger Four makes a brief appearance talking to Nelson Algren, as do various bodies of water in and around Minnesota. The story travels around various parts of the country, but is most at home in the Midwest, and there are lots of fucked up kids you meet along the way.
But ultimately there’s Holly who just wants to tell it like a comeback story, and who wants to find redemption by any means necessary. She’s the main character who the Craig Finn universe seems to spin around, and she’s one of the most interesting rock music has ever produced. Does she make it out OK? We don’t know, Finn doesn’t want to comment on whether she lives or dies in the end. Listening to the album now, the album’s story and Finn’s explanation remind me of something that the Catholic writer and critic Nick Ripatrazone said in an interview: “In Catholic fiction, hope exists, but hope does not always win; in Catholic fiction, a sacramental vision exists, but it might not save troubled characters.”
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Holly goes on after the last chords of “How a Resurrection Really Feels.” Separation Sunday isn’t about that. It’s an album about trying to find faith in dark places; it’s a story about living, surviving, and living some more. It’s a story about trying to find salvation by any means necessary, and sometimes you have to go to some fucked up parties to find that salvation.