Craig Finn is a rarefied American rock stalwart, known for his hoarse sing-speaking as the leader of the ultimate meta-bar band the Hold Steady, but even more so for his writing, his eye for characters named Hallelujah and Nightclub Dwight who put their best flaw forward. Or ones he simply describes as “that one creepy kid at the car wash,” to whom he ascribes turns of phrase like, “He said he could make a few calls/But I don’t think that he made any calls.” But from his rough-hewn indie-rock tenure with Lifter Puller in the ’90s to his current work as a solo artist, Finn has never expressed anger in his singing, even when challenged by the dawn of a fascistic U.S. presidency.
“Even though I’m craving anger from every angle, I didn’t know how much I needed a record that’s of a calm mind and sympathetic to people who feel marginalized, who in my mind are acting poorly because of it,” says the 45-year-old singer-songwriter. “I think of the people on this record as unremarkable people . . . they’re just trying to keep their heads above.”
His third solo album, We All Want the Same Things (released last month on Partisan), seems perversely titled, but the guy who boasts in song that his password is be honest (on the album’s track of the same name) meant the sentiment earnestly. “It’s very apropos — these characters are all trying to get some very basic things,” he says, “shelter, food, safety for our children, freedom. But at the same time, it’s darkly comedic — the record was named before the election but during the campaign. It’s a reminder that on some level, we all want the same big things, we just disagree on how to get there.”
So these “unremarkable” characters get the usual Finn treatment: They need “Ninety Bucks,” they have unfinished business “roughly the size of a baseball,” people miss their old nicknames. The half-recited piano centerpiece “God in Chicago” defeats its own cinematic details with assertions like “Counting all the money in front of him seemed silly/This isn’t the movies/It was over so quickly.” That’s the song from which he nicked the album title, his favorite line on the record. (By this metric, I would’ve called the album Our Safe Word Is Still “Stop It.”)
“I can’t say I believe that all the characters on the record voted the same way I did,” Finn says slyly. “These are stories about people who are affected by politics — such as the health insurance ruling — but can’t slow down enough to ponder these big-picture things.”
His protagonists do seem older this time around, to match the living room circuit the former bar-band demigod has been touring so his fans can get home by 10:30 p.m.; it’s hard to imagine, say, Hallelujah drinking the Bud Clamato he sings of in “It Hits When It Hits.” Finn agrees his characters have aged along with him: “Lifter Puller, my first band, wrote about debauched stuff, partying a lot, getting wasted. Then the Hold Steady wrote a lot about the parties but also the hangovers. This is more people who are maybe a little bit stuck.”
Of his three solo albums, Things is the most full-bodied, musically; opener “Jester & June” begins with the inchoate squall of stray horns before the actual tune starts. Finn credits this to “a lot more people being human in a room together” after 2015’s underrated Faith in the Future was made with only multi-instrumentalist/producer Josh Kaufman and Joe Russo on drums. This time, the Hold Steady’s Tab Kubler plays some guitar, brass and synth fill out the margins, and former Rainer Maria frontwoman Caithlin De Marrais adds ethereal vocals on “Birds Trapped in the Airport.” After the Hold Steady’s tenth anniversary shows for 2006’s Boys and Girls in America last year, Finn realized how much he missed singing with a piano, so there’s tons of that on the album as well.
“Some of the carnival atmosphere that the classic Hold Steady stuff has is in here,” says Finn, though he’s quick to make the distinction that Hold Steady songs come from his words reacting to Kubler’s riffs. But when he writes the chords to go with the lyrics, well: “I’ve brought some of those to the Hold Steady, and we’d had a hard time Hold Steadifying them, if you will. So it’s not like they’ve been rejected, they just don’t come out the same. Josh Kaufman helps me expand them, and we talk about what instruments we’re hearing.”
The ten tracks that make up We All Want the Same Things were culled from the reportedly forty to fifty that Finn wrote last year, and “Jester & June” had a hilariously Hold Steady–esque origin. “This guy in Vegas gave me a card and said, ‘If you want anything, this guy can get you anything.’ It had a skull and crossbones on it and said, ‘Junior and Joker,’ which sounds more like a Lifter Puller song. The Hold Steady has a song called ‘Knuckles,’ about trying to give yourself a nickname. This song is about people who’ve grown out of their nicknames and they’re kind of wistful for it.”
Nothing better describes the archetypal Craig Finn misfit than someone dealing with the middle-aged crisis of one’s nickname no longer fitting as well as it once did. But for all the subtext of a time of diseased politics, and the economic tribulations of these nicknamed no-names, We All Want the Same Things’ chief struggles are emotional at the center.
“When you’re 28, you have that one summer where you go to nine weddings,” Finn says, “and when you’re 45, like I am, you start to see some of those weddings unravel.”
Craig Finn plays City Winery on April 4.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 3, 2017