We’ve all known people like the ones who populate Craig Finn’s songs, especially on his solo releases. They’re the folks on the fringes who just can’t seem to get it together, who keep flubbing opportunities. They’re lost in complicated schemes, handcuffed by the stories they tell themselves, full of if-onlys and could-have-beens. But it’s hard to hear about them after a while. Even Finn seems to know that enough is enough, at least of this cast and crew. He envisions his new LP as the last installment in a trilogy chronicling what the Hold Steady frontman calls “smaller moments—people trying to stay afloat in modern times, attempting to find connection, achieving tiny triumphs and frustrating letdowns in their day-to-day lives.”
They’re not unsympathetic: Finn has developed a novelistic skill at giving depth to the people in his songs, often in just a phrase or two. Despite their flaws, and even their self-delusions, it’s clear he’s rooting for them, though he’s careful as their creator not to interfere with whatever they’re going through—magical happy endings are in short supply. “Mostly,” Finn says in the album notes, “they do their best.” Sometimes that’s enough, but there’s only so many times you can watch someone fall down (or, on a couple of songs, get knocked down) and stagger back to their feet before you want to look away. That’s Francis on “Bathtub in the Kitchen,” a guy who has spent 23 years living in an out-of-date New York apartment and just needs a few bucks to tide him over. It’s the nameless guy on “Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today” who spends the entire day cocooned in bed, his cigarette burning a hole in the bedding, while Carmen, his partner, fantasizes about skipping work and heading west, and tries to keep from weeping at the futility of it all. On “Anne Marie & Shane,” you want her to do better than him, and past mistakes loom crushingly large on “Magic Marker” as a war veteran tries to find his bearings years too late.
Finn leaves it unspoken, but many of these characters are victims of structural failures. They’re casualties of a society that places so little value on the idea of providing meaningful assistance to those who most need it. At the risk of sounding doctrinaire, job training, addiction treatment and a robust safety net would go a long way toward helping some of the people in these songs find a path. Finn is not a polemical guy, but in their way, I Need a New War and its predecessors, We All Want the Same Things (2017) and Faith in the Future (2015), offer a blistering, if implicit, cultural critique. The fact that such a bleak assessment is wholly merited offers scant comfort.
That said, I Need a New War is musically the strongest of Finn’s solo efforts so far. Teaming again with producer Josh Kaufman and musicians including Stuart Bogie (Antibalas) on horns, pianist Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter) on piano, Joe Russo on drums and Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins on backing vocals, the musical arrangements are confident and unfussy. Sometimes they’re downright majestic: “Something to Hope For” passes riffs so catchy they’re mesmerizing among horns, vocals and guitar, while Finn offers an uncommon measure of earned optimism. Bursts of organ and low horns anchor “Magic Marker,” a mix of simple horn, guitar and piano parts cover “Holyoke” like a warm blanket, and there’s a woozy, swaying sensibility in the blend of acoustic guitar and piano on “Grant at Galena.”
There’s not necessarily any closure here as Finn brings his trilogy to an end, but there is a sense of completion. After examining these characters in different lights, from various angles, it’s as if he has done what he can to make their stories resonate. Whatever he decides to do next will indeed be the start of a whole new war.