In the first song on I Need A New War, Craig Finn takes up the sweep of an American life in a handful of lines — guy meets girl, maybe at a Dead show; she’s in recovery; they move to Montana. Things get “druggy” and fall apart; he pieces together life without her, finds religion, has a kid and, eventually gets ominous news from a doctor: “we’re looking at these numbers from your tests.” That’s just the first two verses — it gets sadder, deeper and more provocatively unsettled from there.
It’s one of 10 songs completing an LP trilogy that began in 2015 with Faith In The Future, followed by 2017’s We All Want The Same Things. And you can look at the whole trilogy as just another chapter in Finn’s career-long musical novel, one with a Greyhound busload of hard-luck, hard-partying survivors, and a handful of casualties in the boot. Some characters reoccur, or seem to; their troubles, often involving substance abuse and money, rise up and recede; and while their paths criss-cross the nation, they always seem to orbit Minneapolis/St. Paul, a sort of anti-power spot in Finn’s songwriting cosmology where his ne’er-do-wells regularly find themselves. Four lines from the new song “Blankets” might serve as that novel’s epigram:
When we got to the Twin Cities
I said man I know some songs about this place.
When they swept up all the empties
The parties always seem like such a waste.
If anything, Finn’s empathy has only grown over the years; you never sense him looking down at characters. The empathic epitome here is “Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today,” a shimmering ballad portrait of a woman in a bad relationship and no-better job, who fantasizes about abandoning everything for an open road, but instead turns up dutifully at work. Finn gets as close as he can to her interior life, both in his third-person lyrics and the arrangements; when he closes the couplet “And she never wanted children/Until it seemed like it’s too late,” his backing vocalists sweetly whisper “Bap-pa/bap-pa” in knowing, Leonard Cohen-style consolation.
As with We All Want The Same Things, there’s a sense of these character studies unspooling in the present. “Everybody’s talking about the President/ And me, I’m never sure what I should say,” confesses the narrator of “Magic Marker,” who writes graffiti tags more out of juvenile habit, it seems, than any explicable purpose. The guy’s been dealt so many blows of late, it seems, he can’t spare the energy to debate the merits of a megalomaniacal supposed-billionaire, so far do they seem from his lived experience, which scans as a Desert Storm vet “scratching at the eight-ball in the back half of the bar.” (And no, Finn’s probably not referring to a pool game, though it’s a mark of his writing skill that you might hear it that way.)
Finn’s people are also cut largely from a particular cloth, mostly working-and-middle class U.S. kids who grew up with the promise of unlimited freedom only to find that freedom illusory, maybe even oppressive. But in their vivid specificity, and even repetition, Finn’s stories channels truths that are timeless and universal. His trilogy shows he’s up to more than main-gig moonlighting, and he’s got a body of elliptical tales to show for it, tales that deserve a fuller telling. So here’s hoping he does that, and maybe gets in on the new musical theater renaissance, while still finding time for a new Hold Steady record.