Craig Finn is one of America’s greatest lyricists. From his start in Lifter Puller, through his flourishing in The Hold Steady and on to his ongoing solo career, he’s created entire alternate worlds, spinning tales of colourful characters navigating the dark and drug filled underbelly of American society. His songs are typically loaded with references to pop culture and the Catholic Church, and his overall attitude matches this. Salvation is hard won, and when it does come it’s often through Rock ‘N’ Roll and community.
His last few solo albums, beginning with 2015’s ‘Faith In The Future‘, have seen him turn his talents to smaller and more personal stories. 2012’s ‘Clear Heart, Full Eyes‘ was something of a damp squib, but ‘I Need a New War‘ completes a trilogy of great releases that began in 2015. While it might not be the strongest of the trio – that honour probably goes to 2017’s ‘We All Want the Same Things‘ – ‘I Need A New War’ rounds out the set with a record of some of the most internal character writing Finn has ever attempted.
The people that populate the album are, in typical Finn style, all searching for something – whether they know it or not. ‘Blankets’ kicks things off with a boy-meets-girl saviours-found-and-lost tale, seeing its narrator move out to the prairies with a girl he ‘never hasn’t loved’. Anxiety lurks around every corner, and things don’t end well. It’s a beautiful piece, revealing new layers with every listen.
‘Blankets’ also sets up the album’s themes very quickly. While ‘We All Want the Same Things’ allowed its characters to find some solace in relationships, War suggests that we sometimes need to help ourselves. This is clearest on the excellent ‘A Bathtub in the Kitchen’, in which the narrator struggles with his inability to help his friend Francis, who did him ‘a favour I’ll always remember’. Sure, Francis may not ‘even have a plan’, and he’s likely deep into drugs, but he let the narrator ‘crash out on his couch’ when the they first moved to the city. It’s a relatable story of a tiny kindness, and its refrain of ‘I can’t keep saying ‘thank you’, Francis’ drives home the tension between gratitude and doing what’s right.
It’s a hard line to walk, and the tenderness of Finn’s writing is crucial to making these songs work. Most importantly, he never loses his empathy. His characters may be a mess, always making the wrong choices and failing. But he never sneers or invites us to laugh at them. He’s down there in the muck and dirt of modern life with them – and with us.
The lyrics are once again perfectly matched with the music. ‘Clear Eyes‘ felt somewhat anonymous, even much like a ‘Hold Steady‘ lite in places, but the collaboration with producer and guitar whizz Josh Kaufman (not eh one who works with Pop artists of the likes of Usher) which began on ‘Faith’ continues to bear fruit here. Kaufman accents the songs with harmonies, swirling guitars, and expertly deployed percussion, drenching the whole thing in a warm, Lo-Fi haze. Though this can feel a little samey, a careful listen reveals the depth and variety of the songs.
Finn doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel on ‘I Need a New War’, but he doesn’t need to. His style and delivery have always been polarising – even friends of mine who I’m sure would love his work simply can’t get over his voice. Still, I’d recommend anyone give this record a chance. Much in the way that Bob Dylan isn’t in any way a ‘bad singer’, Finn’s is the perfect voice for these songs. Listen to and absorb this record, and reap the rewards.