For those keeping score at home, Craig Finn has released three solo albums since the last Hold Steady record, his most recent is I Need A New War and it is the best of the bunch. Coming after 2015’s Faith in the Future and 2017’s We All Want The Same Thing the run is less of a trilogy and more like one long album as Finn has partnered with producer/musical director Josh Kaufman (and drummer Joe Russo) on all the efforts; even the album art is interconnected, photos of out of focus Americana.
I Need A New War is the most complete solo album from Finn and sounds as if a scaled down Caledonia Soul Orchestra from Van Morrison’s 1973 tour was backing up a Midwestern raised Richard Hell/Jim Carroll hybrid lyricist who has seen his fair share of rehab, broken homes and last calls.
Opening with the stellar “Blankets” the warbling riffs and Russo’s steady drums lead the way as Finn is immediately locked into his storytelling groove. On the opening track alone he describes strung out survivors, heartaches, broken dreamers yearning for restart, mortality, and feeling overwhelmed wherever you are.
The best musical upticks this go around arrive in the form of warm horns which add soul and augmentation throughout numbers like the popping “Magic Markers” or when they pair with the doo-wop inspired backing vocals from Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins on “Indications” wonderfully; Nero and Jenkins are an overwhelmingly positive addition to Finn’s sound.
The soulful dance-ready “Something to Hope For” gets grooving behind a great bass line before things start softly with an acoustic guitar, then swell dramatically during the album centerpiece “Grant and Galena”. Finn’s singing/songwriting hasn’t changed, he describes outcasts, druggie scenes and down on their luck sinners seeking redemption; anyone who ever tried to succeed in NYC as a young person will find parallels in “A Bathtub in the Kitchen”, even if saying the name Francis approx. 37 times is overkill.
Things can drag a bit as both “Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today” and “Her With The Blues” go full downer, roll along depressingly. “Holyoke” works better as Finn is back in road trip mode dealing with death and cigarettes in a state he returns to often. Wrapping up with the indie flick ready “Anne Marie & Shane”, one of the keenest chroniclers of modern-day struggles remains cinematic.
Finn has been fairly successfully searching for the sound since the Hold Steady’s underwhelming Teeth Dreams and while the newest may not have some of the individual high points from solo records past (“Trapper Avenue” & “God in Chicago” come to mind) it combines all of the elements for a complete offering better than any other. I Need A New War is organic, human, and alive in the moment while conscious of the fleeting frailty of it all, it may just be the next step in his musical journey, but it is a confident stride.