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Modern Love: Craig Finn Finds Hope In Adversity On 'We All Want The Same Things'

Wednesday, 15 March 2017 Written by Huw Baines

When Craig Finn was young he spent a fair bit of time with a copy of Lou Reed’s Greatest Hits. In particular, he was drawn to Wild Child and its cast of characters: Chuck, Phil, Betty, Ed and Lorraine. Back in 2012, while discussing the pros and cons of striking out from the comfort of your band prior to the release of his solo bow, ‘Clear Heart, Full Eyes’, he told Jessica Hopper that his biggest takeaway from the song was a simple one: he wanted to know more about Chuck.

Finn has, in one way or another, been trying to find out more about Chuck through his own writing for the best part of 25 years. With Lifter Puller, the Hold Steady and now under his own name he has investigated rock’s biggest and best moves alongside character studies that border on the exhaustive. He has written about many massive highs and many crushing lows while always attempting to find the humanity in any given situation. Perhaps we should expect as much from someone who signs every autograph with the same two words: Stay Positive.

It’s getting more and more difficult to stay positive, though, and that’s something that Finn confronts at every turn on his new record, ‘We All Want The Same Things’. Here he navigates a confusing, often dispiriting world through the eyes of some people who’ve seen better days and others who haven’t had the chance. It’s an album about love, but not always one about romance. The seeds of hope here are found in relationships that wouldn’t last long under a Hollywood microscope but sustain the people in them all the same. “Do you even remember, they used to call us Junebug and Jester?” he sings on the opener. “We used to have our own tune.”

For the second time on the bounce, following 2015’s ‘Faith In The Future’, Finn’s focus is picking up on the small details in order to paint the big picture. In the shadow of modern America - both pre and post-Trump - he takes down particulars, fashions sharp lines of dialogue, and cuts to meaningful asides to add colour to everyday situations. He drives home his view that there is beauty and wonder in the mundane.

If there’s one thing you could say about the people who flitted through Lifter Puller’s world, it's that they were sometimes desperate. There is desperation here, too. The Hold Steady, for all their beer-soaked hurt, were terribly sentimental when the dust settled. There is sentimentality here, too. But there is no bluster, no wild abandon. Unlike Chuck, no-one is wearing a Genghis Khan suit and wizard’s hat.

“The lens is in a different place,” Finn says over the phone a couple of days before heading out on tour. “There’s more focus on where they’re sitting and what’s around them to tell a story, which seems to be just as good a way to tell it. Maybe just by looking at these characters even closer. You’re trying to create a world for people to go into, but at the same time the characters on this record are very modern.

"I don’t think all these people would have voted on my same side. I think some of these people are facing hardships. Put it this way, I don’t think all these people have health insurance. It speaks to the struggle, some of where we’re at. How people are. It’s the same as a book or a movie. Even though you disappear into this world, and I do believe that fiction is a form of meditation, you can also learn something. And the characters are more interesting if they’re relatable to where we are now.”

At the heart of the record - deliberately in terms of its spot as track five of 10 and also as a thematic anchor - is the song God in Chicago. A spoken word piece gilded with a gorgeous lament of a chorus, it’s not a million miles removed from John K. Samson’s latter-day Weakerthans work and is unquestionably one of Finn’s finest lyrics in years. And, like so many tracks here, its characters are almost spent when it begins. There is a palpable feeling of inertia on ‘We All Want The Same Things’, with members of its ensemble seeking nothing more than a change in their surroundings or, in the least rock ‘n’ roll, break-for-the-border sense imaginable, an escape from routine.

God in Chicago opens in the immediate aftermath of a funeral, with Finn’s wandering eye falling on the sister of the dead man, a stash of drugs found in his closet and a friend who can arrange a transaction through a college buddy who’s growing paunchy on the outskirts of the Windy City. Between those parameters he spins the sort of pop-culture nods (‘1999’ and ‘Led Zeppelin III’ on a boom box in the back seat), character specifics (Wayne from Winnetka picks up on the first ring) and tavern-based romance that we know him for. All firmly in his wheelhouse, right? Well, not really. The track is such a confident stylistic departure that it sticks out immediately, while it’s hard to think of a moment when Finn’s writing has been quite this sad before.

Its first movements are almost oppressive in their mournful atmosphere, but out in Chicago these people find relief for a short while on streets that have a pulse. Back home in their corner of Minnesota there isn’t anything to do to but exist. “I’ve never been to Chicago,” runs the chorus. “I’ve got nothing going on tomorrow. Maybe we could stay here tonight? Lose ourselves in the glass and light.” It feels like a missive from the parts of the country that MTV’s Kaleb Horton recently grouped as ‘Donald Trump’s America’ while writing about the film Hell or High Water: “The Southwest...or the Rust Belt, or rural Pennsylvania, or South Dakota, or the Mojave Desert, or anywhere the bands don’t play.”

“I was trying to make it into a more traditional song using those lyrics,” Finn says. “I’ve always been a talky singer, obviously, but I’ve never done a full spoken word thing. I really like the tension it creates. It’s simple - they don’t do anything massive - but they’re on their first trip to a bigger city and are outside of their comfort zone.

"That’s an attractive place for a story to take place. I think the idea is that they do escape their sadness for some period of time. It was kinda inspired in some way, the very start of it, by the opioid crisis you read about a lot in America right now. I was thinking about how it was affecting normal, down the middle people in our country and how a death in a family might play itself out between a sister and a friend.”

If one song sticks out more than others thanks to the voice of its narrator, though, it’s the first single, Preludes. Here, Finn gets closest to inserting himself into the picture, recalling what it felt like to get back to Minneapolis after college and realise that he was adrift. The feeling was both troubling and exciting, meaning that he had an awful lot in common with some of the people whose stories prop up other songs here and, also, many of his listeners.

“I just read this quote by John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion’s husband, that the first character in any novel is the author,” he says. “I write these stories because they’re somehow close to me. But Preludes is definitely the one where I’m front and centre rather than a narrator or someone who is interested in the story. When we made the record and figured out what was going to make it that was the one that struck me as less about a character than it is about me.

"But it is in some way about someone who is trying to get through and figure things out, who doesn’t have a simple place in the world. Not really killing it, you know what I mean? The working title was 1994, the year I got out of college. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself. It’s a very scary time. Some of the fear and frustration the characters are feeling are matched in that song because of where I was at at that time.”

If God in Chicago makes use of a minimalist palette, then Preludes is an example of another thing that sets ‘We All Want The Same Things’ apart from Finn’s previous solo releases. There is a wealth of clever instrumentation here and a loose-limbed swagger that has accumulated alongside growing familiarity between Finn and producer Josh Kaufman, who has become an important collaborator.

Among the musicians to have contributed are Finn’s old Hold Steady sparring partner Tad Kubler, keyboard player Sam Kassirer and Stuart Bogie, who handled the many horn flourishes. Providing a striking counterpoint to Finn’s style, and lending credence to the twin-perspective dynamic, are singer-songwriter Annie Nero and former Rainer Maria vocalist Caithlin De Marrais, who turn in arresting performances on God in Chicago and Birds Trapped in the Airport respectively.

At times the album’s mesh of styles encompasses new wave keys, washes of Randy Newman and Elvis Costello and enjoyably morose balladeering, but Finn ties them all together under his own banner. It really is unlike anything he's put out before, but he takes that in his stride. This is the sort of LP that can make a solo career make perfect sense.

“Josh and I made ‘Faith in the Future’ together and that was the first thing we worked on,” Finn says. “We knew each other sort of, but not well. This record felt like a band making its second record. There was a confidence and shorthand that we had, as well as knowing that you weren’t going to offend anyone by giving them honest feedback. There was a comfort there. We surrounded ourselves with some real high-end players. Really good people. That was, at first, a little bit intimidating to me. These are people that aren’t punk rock people. They’re big musicians. When I was able to hang with them and impress them on some level, it gave me confidence. Through some discomfort and intimidation, you get better.”

Throughout ‘We All Want The Same Things’ you get the feeling that Finn is learning plenty about himself as a musician and writer as we ourselves glean information about the people who populate the songs. For a record that documents lives lived tough and close to the margins, it’s a warm, even triumphant experience. There is light among the shade and that comes down to Finn knowing his characters inside and out. He knows why tears well in their eyes, but he also knows what sort of jeans they wear and what colour their jackets are. They are the people you sit next to on the bus; the other person in the bar nursing a lonely beer.

“In most cases the people are unremarkable,” he says. “They’re certainly not wealthy and they’re certainly not flashy. They’re regular people.” At a time when our differences seem certain to define us and our place in history, Finn’s commitment to hope is a little revelatory. The album’s title might be an inky black joke, but it stings because of the truth at its heart.

'We All Want The Same Things' is out on March 24 through Partisan Records.

Craig Finn Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sun April 16 2017 - RAMSGATE Music Hall
Wed April 19 2017 - LONDON Courtyard Theatre

Click here to compare & buy Craig Finn Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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