Ask a Craig Finn fan to picture the contents of the singer’s brain on a given day, and they might imagine a steady stream of the sort of first-pumping underdog tales he’s spent 16 years shouting onstage as frontman of the Hold Steady. But these days, the singer often fixates on a different kind of narrative.
“Honestly, where my head’s at, as far as what I think about when I walk around, is the more mundane stuff, more the people in these songs,” Finn says.
He’s referring to the contents of I Need a New War, the third in a trilogy of solo albums that began with 2015’s Faith in the Future and continued with 2017’s We All Want the Same Things. Each of these records features detached, novelistic observations of the lives of characters Finn calls “unremarkable people.”
I Need a New War zeroes in on middle-class professionals slogging through office jobs or mothers and fathers overcome with unsexy middle-aged ennui — people who surely don’t have time for the scrappy rock & roll mishaps chronicled in so many Hold Steady songs, if they ever did. The main character in “Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today” is a woman bearing the weight of supporting her hanger-on boyfriend, while “Something to Hope For” turns a man’s car-accident–lawsuit windfall into cause for some hard-earned celebration. Finn calls “Holyoke,” which details “rental cars and restaurants,” “probably the most middle-aged song I’ve written.”
“These three records are really about the same kind of people,” Finn continues. “They’re smaller, more realistic, more everyday, and more reflective of the people I see around me as I travel.”
Finn is 47 now, and he’s become fixated on the notion of remaining an age-appropriate songwriter. At this point, as he puts it, he’d much rather write songs that take place in the afternoon than at midnight — or, worse, four in the morning.
“There’s no sing-along chorus about these people,” he says. “There’s no way you can write a Hold Steady song about them.”
Faith in the Future marked the first time Finn worked with his current group of musical collaborators outside the Hold Steady, including guitarist-producer Josh Kaufman (The National, Hiss Golden Messenger) and drummer Joe Russo. Since that period, Finn has been writing daily and recording in brief sessions in upstate New York at a near-constant pace.
“It almost feels like we started recording and never stopped,” he says. “Whatever is populating my thoughts is now ending up on paper, whereas maybe before it was like, ‘Wow, that’s a crazy story. I’m going to write a song.’ This has been more, ‘I’m writing no matter what.’” Each successive album has broadened the singer’s musical palette, and I Need a New War is his most expansive solo work to date, complete with fluttering horns and call-and-response backup singers.
It’s taken some time for Finn to establish himself as a solo artist, and convince fans and critics that this body of work isn’t merely a stopgap between Hold Steady albums. The song that’s helped the most in that regard is 2017’s “God in Chicago,” a gut-punch spoken-word drama recited over gentle piano. The track, which alludes to a drug death, has connected with fans all across the country who have been through something similar. “It told a very clear story and it’s sad. Sad sells,” says Finn. “But really, a lot of people are affected by the opioid crisis. When I go on tour, people talk to me after the show — they’ll say, ‘You know, that song means a lot to me. I lost someone.’”
For Finn, the response to “God in Chicago” has also helped reinforce the idea that the work he’s doing is more vital than anything the Hold Steady have released in more than a decade. “There’s the Paul Stanley thing where you say every Kiss record is the best one yet, but I do feel like right now, I’m at least at one of my peaks with these last two records,” he says. “I think Boys and Girls in America and Separation Sunday [the Hold Steady’s albums from 2006 and 2005, respectively] might have been another. But I certainly think Heaven Is Whenever, Teeth Dreams [the band’s LPs from 2010 and 2014] those are valleys to me.”
Over the years, the Minnesota-raised songwriter has earned a reputation for his highly specific lyrical references to his hometown of Minneapolis (see the long-defunct, eternally brilliant “Knockoff Craig Finn” Twitter account for a spot-on parody). In I Need a New War opener “Blankets” — a song that partially takes place, once again, in St. Paul — Finn gives a winking nod to his preoccupation with his hometown. “When we got to the Twin Cities,” he sings, “I said, ‘Man, I know some songs about this place.’”
But for the most part, I Need a New War takes place in New York, where Finn has lived for nearly 20 years. His protagonists are often leaving, returning to, newly enamored with or most often simply struggling with the day-to-day realities of life in NYC. At one point during the recording process, Finn half-considered naming the album Failure in the City.
In “Her With the Blues,” Finn details a New York full populated by “fire-escape flower pots” and “the sameness in Irish bars.” Unlike Hold Steady songs, with their hyper-specific sense of geography, the track’s scene-setting is intentionally vague, a placeholder for the type of dreary anonymity that Finn’s characters struggle with in I Need a New War.
“These are people who are trying to keep their heads above water, who maybe felt like they’ve done everything they were told to do, and still aren’t making it,” the songwriter says. “They aren’t going to morph into superheroes. They aren’t going to save the day, but they’re trying. They have their own mundane struggles, but struggles nonetheless.”