It’s no wonder that Craig Finn has become as revered a songwriter as he is. The influence of The Hold Steady has been projected far and wide for years for a start, but the fact that it’s translated so seamlessly to his solo material -not to mention a work ethic that’s kept both projects in relative equilibrium for a while now – has earned him a much-deserved spot among the modern greats. But like so many who’ve come both before and alongside him, what’s really set him apart is a sense of understanding and humanity, not only in writing that’s become known for its witty and referential nature, but the widespread inspiration that the world around him has had, something that can only persist for an older man in a world changing so rapidly. And that’s where I Need A New War falls, with Finn looking at his home of New York from the perspective of those adapting and surviving in the constantly shifting environment, a concept that feels so distinctly emblematic of Finn’s persona as a musician without the initial caveats of laziness or predictability.
That being said, it’s hard to formulate a better description of I Need A New War than ‘it sounds like what you’d expect a Craig Finn album to sound like at this point’. And that’s not a bad thing either; in terms of musical breadth, there’s a lot more that’s been thrown in than a rote collection of folk and indie tropes, while lyrically it’s packed with the exact sort of intelligent, eloquent storytelling that comes with enough experience to set itself apart from the pack. Again, it’s what you’d expect, but for what this album lacks in true thrills, it makes up for it in the sort of engaging emotion and pathos that, at his very best, Finn can really knock out of the park.
It’s how weighty of theme survival is to this album that lets that strike the most, if only because Finn’s snapshots of various people doing whatever they can simply to get by never feel over-dramatic or showy for the sake of showiness, and with a vocal timbre that naturally feels a little worn-down and haggard, the sense of attrition that comes through in these stories is what balances out the natural melancholy for them to work so well. It’s present from the very first track Blankets, where the memory of an old relationship is what keeps the narrator going as he pushes through feelings of hardships and loneliness, but Finn knows how to twist these stories in a way to highlight how universal these feelings are, and how surviving can be a very different concept to thriving. It’s what gives the dour, downbeat air to a track like A Bathtub In The Kitchen, where the friend’s life has hit a rocky patch but he still lets the narrator stay with him out of pure kindness, or Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today, where the protagonist wants to escape her mundane life and one-sided relationship but can’t out of the fear of the unknown. It’d be easy to call Finn’s writing on this part mature, but more often than not it just comes across as realistic, and such an openly drab note really lends a lot of weight to these songs, coming from a man clearly buffeted by his own years and experience, but can still present that knowledge in a compelling and sobering way.
It’s possibly why I Need A New War can come across as a bit one-note in its presentation, arguably the only real negative that can be applied to it, but one that does have a significant effect overall. On its own, this is hardly the most thrilling album to listen to, especially given that it can feel a bit flat and meandering, especially towards the end on tracks like Her With The Blues which tries for an almost minimalist lounge vibe that struggles to pick up much steam throughout. The production doesn’t really help either, remaining unfailingly slick throughout and pushing Finn’s vocals right to the front of the mix to highlight just how little modulation there really is here. What makes up for it, however, is that, when viewed in isolation, this has a lot wider of an instrumental breadth than so many albums in its vein, and that captures a sense of poise that’s never usually a factor here. The interesting progressions made through the rippling guitars and synths of Blankets and Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today are one thing, but the touches of jazz and easy-listening on Indications and Holyoke are remarkably well-crafted, and dipping into territory reminiscent of a pared-back Bruce Springsteen track on Anne Marie & Shane feels like arguably the best way possible to round this album off. Again, there’s an age to how this is all presented, and while that leaves any sort of intensity as virtually nonexistent, in terms of tying the whole package together, it’s a direction that has a net payoff overall.
And that’s ultimately why I Need A New War is an easy album to like overall. It’s definitely a more tempered move, but in terms of presence and a songwriting nous that stands out incredibly strongly, Finn really is in a league of his own here. It’s about as honest and unflinchingly uncompromised as this sort of indie-rock comes, but that has power to it that Finn knows exactly how to channel, even if it’s almost exclusively below the surface. But that’s the sign of a great songwriter, and for what he delivers here, Finn has more than earned the right to be called exactly that.
For fans of: Bruce Springsteen, The Gaslight Anthem, The Hold Steady
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘I Need A New War’ by Craig Finn is released on 26th April on Partisan Records.