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We All Suffer, We're All In This Together: Craig Finn Talks 'I Need A New War'

Wednesday, 17 April 2019 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Shervin Lainez

Back in the day, if you pulled up a chair at the kitchen table with the punk kids and hoodrats who ran riot in Craig Finn’s songs then your elbows had to settle for the gaps between empty beer cans and little bags of powder. To your left and right everyone was tired and wired—perpetual motion, with hearts set on the top but heads sweating rock bottom and the latest killer party. That was the way of things in the bloody, ugly, triumphant tales that defined the early years of the Hold Steady.

Sidle up alongside some of the faces making their way through the world of Finn’s new solo record, though, and you’ll find something different. There’s the same scratched Formica, and some heavy eyelids, but fewer big plans and reckless moods. Instead, the talk on ‘I Need a New War’ is about the latest rent hike, or how much a bag of groceries cost that morning.

“These are things that really affect the people in the songs,” Finn says over a lunchtime soft drink at a deserted London bar. “I don’t think it’d be metaphysical conversation, you know? It would be very real. These are people trying to get through with grace and dignity.”

Finn is in town following a short sightseeing trip to Lisbon, which bookended a long run of pared-back shows with the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon on both sides of the Atlantic. The ensuing days, meanwhile, will see the curtain raised on the latest instalment of the Weekender, the Hold Steady’s now annual celebration of loud noises and old friends in the English capital.

His solo work exists at this crossroads—it has long been concerned with stories that he describes as ‘smaller’ than the ones that underpinned his band’s booze-sodden finest hours, but they unfold on the same streets. ‘I Need a New War’ is the third release in a trilogy that began with 2015’s ‘Faith in the Future’ and continued with 2017’s ‘We All Want The Same Things’, and each record has focused on what amounts to a sort of modern inertia. The fact that album one’s title would be better deployed these days as a bitter, sarcastic barb is a bummer.

“They aren’t in a different place,” Finn says of the characters who dot the record. “I almost feel like they’re the same people but I’m looking at them from different angles. ‘Faith in the Future’ was about people going to work and trying to push forward that way, persevering. ‘We All Want The Same Things’ was about partnerships, almost, pairs of people. This one has this element of people trying to move, or at least keep pace with the modern world, which is ever-changing because of technology, capitalism, and sometimes not quite making it.”

Placing added stress on the shoulders of those who call ‘I Need a New War’ home is the fact that this could realistically be termed Finn’s New York record. It’s an interesting shift in perspective because, while it’s been 14 years since he sang “I wasn't even at that party, I'd already moved out to New York City” on the Hold Steady’s Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night, musician friends still ask him where to eat when their tour stops in Minneapolis.

It’s not a perception that’s likely to die altogether—picture him in your mind’s eye and the cap he’s wearing has a Twins logo on it—and one line from the LP’s lead single, Blankets, seems to acknowledge that with a wink. “When we got to the Twin Cities I said, ‘Man, I know some songs about this place’,” Finn sings.

“My dad lives there only half the year, my sister’s still there,” he says. “I still love it, it’s still part of me, but after 19 years in New York you have these memories that are 10 years old, which is when you’d already lived there for nine years. I think I need time to figure out what’s interesting about things, but now I’ve lived in New York long enough to look back 15 years I can do that.”

But the city isn’t just the setting for these songs, it’s a looming presence. The rents are high in buildings with low ceilings, and the pace of things is ratcheted up to make absolutely sure any stragglers are cut loose. Gentrification isn’t something you read about in the op-ed section, it’s the reason the place you eat breakfast sometimes has become an Insta-ready kombucha spot or, even worse, the reason you’re getting evicted at the end of the month.

“A lot of times on the new record people have something in their past that they’re trying to get through, or over,” Finn says. “Living in New York puts you hyper in touch with that. I’ve had my own apartment in Green Point since 2009, and the changes are wild. If you aren’t changing with it your rent’s going to go up, right?

“When the health food stores start opening up and the Polish bakeries start slowing down, it’s coming. You better be changing too or you’re going to have to go somewhere else. There’s a few songs on this record that talk about that, but it’s not just New York. It’s the world. New York’s a microcosm, how it pushes people.”

One of the finest songs on ‘I Need a New War’ is A Bathtub in the Kitchen, a fidgety ballad that squares the circle between pop megastar-era Phil Collins and Lou Reed in storytelling mode. It’s achingly romantic and gorgeously performed by the expressive band that also lit up ‘We All Want The Same Things’, but it’s also desperately sad—like watching a life-altering failure happen in real time.

Finn sketches a familiar scene—leaning on a friend when you’ve moved to a new place—and we’re bystanders as the balance shifts, leaving one half of the duo clinging on with white knuckles. The lights in big cities are beautiful every night of the year, but they’re not shining for every person on the asphalt below. “I was desperate for New York to ask me out,” Finn sings. “I was trying to find my footing, I was drinking, I was dancing.”

“People from all over move to take advantage of opportunities, pursue their dreams, and in that sense that character is hopeful, absolutely,” Finn says. “But the other thing is, sometimes it doesn’t work out. This guy it’s worked out for, but his friend Francis, the one who showed him the ropes, it’s now not working out for, because he didn’t keep up. He doesn’t have a plan and he’s looking to borrow $200. It’s like, how long is that going to last you? It’s very hard to watch when it’s not working out for someone. There’s a shame to it.”

As his acoustic tour with Fallon rolled on Finn began adding new songs to his set. Blankets was one of them, the ringing chords of its chorus hitting hard even in a skeletal arrangement, along with a track called Magic Marker. In that setting its narrative had a bleached sort of power, as though lit by a single bare bulb. On ‘I Need a New War’, its elaborate staging illustrates the growth in Finn’s solo work, and the ongoing give and take between message and presentation.

Backed by a pinched, Steve Nieve-adjacent organ, an E-Streetwise horn arrangement and percussion that breaks open almost of its own volition, Finn takes a person whose problems might also be our problems and lets them have the floor for a moment. “Everybody’s talking ‘bout the President, and me I’m never sure what I should say,” runs the strangely celebratory hook. A New York record, after all, has to also be an American record.

“There’s almost a luxury of reading the New York Times, or having an hour to spend, or the education, or whatever it may be, to have this serious opinion,” Finn says. “I feel like some of these characters don’t have that luxury, and they are the people most affected by these policies. I was thinking a lot about those people.

“There was someone in my life who said to me: ‘Why is everyone mad at this [Brett] Kavanaugh guy?’ And I was like: ‘Woah.’ He didn’t know any of it. If I explained it to him he’d agree with me, but he just didn’t know anything. Ignorance is bliss, or whatever. The people in these songs are struggling with real day to day things, and in a lot of cases they’re doing what they’re told: go to work, try to do your best, raise a family honestly. And still there’s something not happening for them, even though they’re following the rules.”

Finn approaches these issues as a college educated, and very well read, white man in his 40s—like Bruce Springsteen before him he’s standing up for people whose problems aren’t always his own anymore—but his lens is a sympathetic one, and he is unfailingly warm. Throughout ‘I Need a New War’ there’s a real sense that Finn is using the tools that have served him well to this point to address another heel turn from a country that, likewise, has fascinated him for as long as he can remember.

‘I Need a New War’ takes its title from the song Grant at Galena, a modern character study inspired by Ulysses S. Grant during a period of his life where he was drunk, floundering at a convenience store in Illinois and, as Finn puts it, “really not killing it in civilian life”. “And then the Civil War comes,” he adds. “He joins up, feels like he has a purpose. Abraham Lincoln makes him a general, he wins the war for the Union and becomes President of the United States. In Grant’s story, he rises again. He’s in a lull, or he hopes he is.” It’s certainly not the most impenetrable metaphor Finn has deployed in a song, but it meets the threshold of a glimmer of hope.

On stage with the Hold Steady at London’s Electric Ballroom, arms spread wide in praise of Joe Strummer, Jack Kerouac and Dillinger Four, Finn’s message is bruised but resolute. “There is SO. MUCH. LOVE,” he chants. You get the feeling that he’d gladly portion off some of that love for Francis and those like him on ‘I Need a New War’—there’s enough in the building to leave a warm glow in anyone’s chest—and maybe that’s as good a place to start as any.

“I’m not trying to trick anyone into it,” Finn says. “But when you’re in a room singing a really sad lyric at the top of your lungs it’s an acknowledgement that we all suffer, and that we’re all in this together.”

‘I Need a New War’ is out on April 26 through Partisan.

Craig Finn Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri October 11 2019 - BRISTOL Exchange
Sat October 12 2019 - NOTTINGHAM Bodega Social Club
Sun October 13 2019 - GLASGOW King Tut's
Tue October 15 2019 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Wed October 16 2019 - MANCHESTER Deaf Institute
Thu October 17 2019 - LONDON Oslo
Sun October 20 2019 - DUBLIN Sugar Club

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

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