While there’s real emotions loaded behind every Hold Steady song, they’re built around magical realism, where liquor and painkillers are the means to rebirth more than they are a cause of death. I Need a New War, the latest solo album from Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, occupies the same spaces that records like Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America does, but Finn isn’t as reckless and mystified as he was in those mid-aughts masterpieces. While Finn still eludes to heavy drinking and a complicated relationship with faith, he’s much more aware of the repercussions of those viewpoints.
On what may be his most ambitious album, Finn’s band provides lush and mature instrumentation. The band captures a lot of sadness in songs highlighted by brass and piano leads. Always a man for the classics, Finn’s songs channel the saddest corners of Billy Joel or Van Morrison’s discography. The saxophone on “Her with the Blues” is a scene-setter, as Finn raps about the things we carry. “Grant at Galena” has a level of bombast that could be found in Hold Steady songs, but it’s more restrained and aware of how far to let itself go. The album opens and closes with more oomph than the introspective middle songs, but this does feel like Finn’s “grown up” record; there’s very little distortion or reckless singalongs. These are songs that narrate the bar that you prefer to go to, or you play alone late at night. There aren’t Japandroids-inspired, soaring choruses or Jimmy Page homages of guitar solos. This is a lonely record.
Throughout the record, Finn sings about life with enough specificity that it feels like you’re sitting in the dilapidated apartments or bars where the songs take place. These songs are stories told by conversations. Even though Finn has always occupied a space where he’s one of the best storytellers in music, he’s telling stories here, rather than proclaiming them:
Now, it’s been twenty years
Since, what we call, the accident,
And everybody knows,
But no one ever mentions it.
Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the president,
and me, I’m never sure what I should say
I Need a New War is as current as it will be viewed as timeless. The snapshots of Massachusetts (in “Holyoke”) and it’s cemeteries is a dreadfully beautiful piece of Americana that we don’t necessarily talk about. Finn can draw as much existential worry to Carmen taking a sick day to Ulysses S. Grant, post-Civil War.
The most accurate point of comparison is to say that the characters in New War are the hangover from The Hold Steady records, but these songs are wonderful continuations from the characters in “God in Chicago” or “Dennis and Billy” from Finn’s previous solo releases. This is Finn’s most fully realized work on his own. Despite the large amount of sadness, the record revolves on “Anne Marie & Shane,” a relatively upbeat song. It’s not exactly a happy song. It’s a song that finds joy where it is. It’s a song that almost says “Life’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.”