I Need A New War
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Craig Finn’s characters suffer all manner of indignities on his latest solo album, I Need A New War: Their lights are turned off because they can’t pay the bills; they spend far too much time living in a place where the bathroom and kitchen are one and the same; they battle middle-aged health scares and are haunted by unmentioned past incidents. One of the title characters of “Ann Marie And Shane,” the album’s closing track, ends the song missing, while the other doesn’t want to talk about it.
Yet their inner lives, as elucidated by one of the great songwriters, are fascinatingly profound and relevant to people in all walks of life. I Need A New War is being billed as the third album in a trilogy, and what a run it’s been. Starting with 2015’s Faith In The Future and continuing through We All Want The Same Things two years later, Finn has found a comfort zone telling more intimate tales than the widescreen tableaus he favors with The Hold Steady.
There is also something to be said about how these albums have advanced musically. On Faith In The Future, it was all about clearing away the heavy guitars and thundering drums so that Finn’s narratives could have room to breathe. With that template established, he, producer Josh Kaufman, and the supporting musicians have added lovely flourishes along the way. This album luxuriates at times in languid, jazzy ambience, while female backing vocalists coo in response to Finn’s lead and brass coexists winningly with synths.
It’s fitting that there are varied musical settings, because Finn’s characters keep wandering around in a futile effort to escape their problems. The couple in “Holyoke” make note of the preponderance of cemeteries in Massachusetts, perhaps because their own mortality is bearing down on them. “Blankets” finds the narrator feeling hemmed in by the prairie land around him; it also gives Finn a chance for a self-reflexive nod to his Hold Steady haunts when his character reaches Minnesota and says, “Man, I know some song about this place.”
Sputtering relationships, both the romantic and fraternal types, form the basis of many of the best songs here. “A Bathtub In The Kitchen” looks at the limits of gratitude, while “Her With The Blues” details a hipster whose priorities seem to lie everywhere except with his neglected lover. On “Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today,” the title character dreams of taking the highway anywhere but back to her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, but she can’t commit to making the move.
Nobody is better at the telling detail or the darkly comic one-liner; “Everybody’s family until they don’t get paid” and “My old friends are fine but their new friends are freaks” are two of the best of the latter. Finn marshals all his forces for “Grant At Galena,” a stunning character sketch of a guy who is a microcosm of all the songwriter’s down-on-his-luck antiheroes: Broke, bemused and bravely resilient, dreaming of a day when he’ll rise again like Ulysses S. Grant once did.
If indeed I Need A New War is the closing part of a trilogy, that would mean that Craig Finn might be moving on from this format for his next go-round. Still, there seems to be no shortage of damaged characters waiting to be raised from obscurity and granted minor victories among their myriad defeats by his songwriting genius, no matter what kind of music he uses to make that happen.