Craig Finn’s lyrics have always had an indescribable feeling to them, reading like heartland rock anecdotes filled with first-person experiences while having references to classic literature, even when talking about parties that “get druggy and ugly.” From his solo work, to work with The Hold Steady, he’s long been one of our great lyricists. Using repeating characters, Springsteen-y rock and roll, and a deliberate literary yet rambly tone, The Hold Steady have always been one of our best rock bands working, despite a slight decline in critical consensus. It’s been a while since the last Hold Steady record, but it seems the energetic charm and prowess is lost, as Craig Finn’s latest solo record, I Need a New War, is vacant at the core. It’s a slow album with very little to offer, aside from fleeting pleasures and Finn’s admittedly superb lyricism.
It’s odd that the majority of a new Craig Finn record is a slog. In an attempt to tell the stories of average and ordinary people, Finn slows down the tempo, backs his instrumentation with horns, female backing vocals, and keys, which drain the life out of any song they touch. A stray groove pops up from time to time on tracks like 'Something to Hope For', but the moments of gravitas don’t sustain themselves over the record. The production here is weightless, feeling like not a single song has texture or grit to it. Part of what made Finn’s lyricism work with The Hold Steady was the roughness in the production. Even on the album highlight 'Blankets', the music only picks up once we hit the chorus. Now that he’s writing lyrics about similar but middle-aged people, it would help for these slow numbers to have any sort of musical character to them.
On the other hand, Finn is obviously not without talent. The scenarios and characters he writes about are fascinating. He’s a gifted poet, combining working class prose with people we know, finding only beauty in the most common situations. Even on I Need a New War’s longest stretch, the four-song slog of 'Magic Marker' to 'Grant at Galena', the bars, pool tables, aimless car rides, and other lyrical touchstones are in sharper focus than ever. The rising call of the lines “...but I forget what it's for, I'm Grant at Galena, I need a new war,” almost feel triumphant and huge until they get washed away by the soul-crushingly boring music. 'Holyoke' feels like one of Finn’s best songs ever about a relationship, but that’s only if you were reading the lyric sheet. It’s special that Craig closes the record with 'Anne Marie & Shane', one of the most heartbreaking songs he’s ever written. This is the only track on I Need a New War where the hazy rolls of the drums, the honk of the horns, and the hungover and depressed instrumentation works. The depiction of the abusive relationship is wrenching, especially when the music comes to a climax. You wish that I Need a New War had more like this by the end.
Favorite Tracks: Blankets, Anne Marie & Shane, Something to Hope For
Least Favorite Tracks: Magic Marker, Her with the Blues