Album Review: The obvious constant throughout Craig Finn’s career, including six albums with The Hold Steady, and now on his fourth solo album, is his penchant for storytelling. Growing up in a ‘burb near the Twin Cities in Minnesota, Finn was influenced by the story telling in the songs of Grant Hart in Husker Du and Paul Westerberg of The Replacements, but his work has had more than a few nods toward Bruce Springsteen, and suggests the influence of short story fiction writers in the line of a Raymond Carver.
While writing for Hold Steady, Finn tended to find his stories from the party life, and even the hangover and regrets that came with it, but in his solo albums, especially on 2015’s “Faith In the Future,” 2017’s We All Want the Same Things and this newest outing, he’s been writing more and more about characters, like himself, as they are aging, trying to make sense of mid-life. Now for all we know, Finn himself is fairly well-adjusted and happy in his personal life, but the people in the stories he tells are not nearly as settled and comfortable. For instance, in “Grant at Galena,” which provides the lyric that gives the album its title, I Need A New War, Finn tells of a man who failed at his one attempt at professional success and now lives in a house where the power has been turned off, because he couldn’t make the payments. And so it goes.
Like the two previous albums, Finn has teamed up with producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman to shape the musical framework for his three verse narratives, relying on a horn section and chorus of female backing vocals and a harmonica solo here, a guitar track there to give each song a musical signature. There’s a solid formula at work here, but occasionally, as on “Something To Hope For,” everything gels in a way that adds that essential spark between lyric and melody and it coalesces into something quite special.
But generally the story lines, Finn’s world weary vocals, and the music designed to support both, tend toward the all too familiar situations of disappointment and regret that capture Finn’s imagination. There’s a genuine empathy, for the characters he writes about – the guy sleeping on his friend’s couch in a cramped NYC apartment with “A Bathtub in the Kitchen,” and the woman trapped in a dead-end job and a hopeless relationship (“Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today), and the guy all hung up who hangs out with “Her With the Blues” – but rarely seems to write them a way out of their troubles. While Finn is a good storyteller, he rarely finds a way to give the folk’s lives he describes a chance at redemption, so it’s certainly not cheerful listening, even if it can ring true enough most of the time. I get why writers tell sad stories, but like Charlie, eventually we need something to hope for.
Key Tracks: “Blankets” / “Something to Hope For” / “A Bathtub In the Kitchen”
Artists With Similar Fire: Bruce Springsteen / Mountain Goats / David Bazan
Craig Finn Website
Craig Finn Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb