To use one of Craig Finn’s favourite lyrical phrases, much of the music world considered The Hold Steady singer-songwriter’s last solo album to be “pretty sweet”, especially the spoken-word track ‘God in Chicago’, which got buried by avalanches of praise from all angles and tells a tale of two people making a return road trip from St. Paul, MN to the Windy City.

The piano-based track contains the line “this isn’t the movies”, and somehow it’s a phrase that returns to me and resonates time and again when I listen to Finn’s latest and arguably most anticipated record, ‘I Need a New War’, an April 26th release on Partisan Records. What I think makes the line so resonant is that the folks in these ten new songs appear to be too real to be movie characters. The mundanity of the situations is striking. There is no redemption or heroism or Hollywood endings, just American losers struggling to get by.

‘Failure in the City’ was reportedly one of the titles briefly in the running for the album at one point,  but what’s admirable is the empathy that comes across as Finn sings these stories. People will have different perspectives and in a way this seems strange to say in these times of Trump and Brexit, but even a word like ‘loser’ is for me being rejected by a modern society that wants to be more caring for its citizens, and Finn’s characters get the compassion they deserve.

If closing lines of songs are anything to go by, though, there’s a bleakness to this record. The brilliant ‘Blankets’, the first previewed track from the album, leaves us with “you travel your whole life just to get out to the place you’re gonna die”. ‘Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today’ closes with “it’s hard to keep from crying when there’s nothing more to say”. And when the lilting ‘Holyoke’ ends with “I swear to God they’re every other mile”, it’s in reference to graveyards in Massachusetts.

Still, amidst all the anxiety, addiction, health scares, unpaid bills and depression, there is a tangible sense that all is not lost. The protagonist in ‘Grant at Galena’ is unemployed, the electricity company has cut off the power and he wanders aimlessly over to the mall whenever it gets too dark at home to read. Yet, as a character, he is named after Ulysses S. Grant, who, returning to his hometown of Galena after serving as a soldier, for seven years he worked in a shop, struggled financially and drank too much. It was only when the Civil War broke out in 1861 and Grant joined the Union Army that he was inspired to change his life for the better as he started on a path that led to him becoming president of the United States. The implication for the character in the song is that his present Galena struggle is a phase that will pass, and in the meantime he finds purpose in life by caring for an injured bird he finds in the backyard.

Musically, with this being Finn’s fourth solo release and third with producer and musician Josh Kaufman, we are ever further from the abrasive guitars of the music he is known for on band frontman duty in Lifter Puller and The Hold Steady. We have backing vocals from Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins that recall ‘60s girl-group revival bands like La Luz or even the likes of Jennifer Warnes backing Leonard Cohen, as well as organs (including what sounds something like a Mighty Wurlitzer on ‘Indications’) and brass that all combine to provide Finn with his most soulful work to date.

The arrangements are stellar and offer a variety that keeps me engaged throughout, although I would perhaps have preferred different choices to have been made for the mixing and mastering in order to leave the vocals, drums and brass more room to breathe and give the sound even more of a luxurious soulfulness. But that’s just personal taste and ultimately it’s all about the songs and stories. This batch is as captivating as almost any Finn has given us in his career, and that’s really saying something.

Craig Finn: I Need A New War – out April 26th 2019 (Partisan Records)

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.