Music Reviews
I Need a New War

Craig Finn I Need a New War

(Partisan) Rating - 9/10

On his fourth solo album, Craig Finn further refines his storytelling. I Need a New War is a sumptuous portfolio of melancholy tales that pull us into a naturalistic, urban Midwest. It's rarely useful to compare song lyrics to literature, but the Hold Steady frontman is writing at a level that demands a literary correlative.

Finn's stories feature unreliable narrators voiced with nuance, and narratives that may soar into abstraction but always return to earth on some marvelous, carefully plucked detail. The people in his songs live normal lives, but beneath the surface, we sense a sea of contradictions and complexity; they are desperate but hopeful, gone but not forgotten, aging yet puttering along on fumes left in the tank. Finn's characters drive by graveyards, do drugs, watch loved ones expire, take anxiety meds, burn the bed with cigarettes, and move to big cities. It's not a stretch to say that Finn's world evokes the gray and pink-tinted vistas of Richard Ford and Raymond Carver.

The emotional centerpiece, Grant at Galena, brings to mind a song from Finn's last album, It Hits When It Hits, in terms of gut-punching sadness. Subtler this time around—and even challenging to parse at first—repeated listens pay off with absolute heartbreak. The title character, Grant, leaves unopened bills while his power is cut off: “When I lose light for reading, I walk up to the mall.” This restrained discourse and other subtle lyrical moves convey an abundance of meaning, from tragedy to nostalgia to resignation. Unsaid, but suggested by the chorus (“I'm Grant at Galena. I need a new war”) is that we're in the mind of a veteran trying to assimilate to Galena (a small, historic town in Illinois). As the song reaches its emotional apex, Finn repeats verses, not because he's out of words, but because each repetition adds a new strata of meaning. What starts as statements of fact become reflections, then mantras, then the cries of an individual trying to cling to meaning. That is to say, Finn is operating at a whole new level of finesse here, and gifts us something truly beautiful.

None of Finn's nuance would work without an adept musical complement, but don't worry, Finn's band accentuates every gentle emotional move. As with his last album, a woodwind and horn section rounds out a traditional rock setup that channels Springsteen, sixties soul and especially Lambchop, and does so creatively and better yet, coherently. Finn's dropped-register, Elvis Costello-like spoken word melts the variety of songs into something whole, ensuring that by the end of the album we've been on a unified journey.

There was only one track that didn't hold with the restrained poetics of the others, Something to Hope For, an upbeat number that follows Grant at Galena. The trumpets and backing vocals gave off the goofy vibe of sixties game shows, or if I'm being less generous, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. That said, the song does provide relief after the heartrending songs that came before.

My only other criticism is that the album fades out all too soon. I've heard that I Need a New War is the third in a trilogy of albums, but I'm hoping for another. In the meantime, let's stop referring to Craig Finn as the singer of The Hold Steady. He's just Craig Finn now, and that's a good thing. [Believe the Hype]