There are songwriters, and there are storytellers. And, occasionally, they happen to be the same person. Suzanne Vega is one, Bruce Springsteen is certainly another. And, as anyone who’s ever heard an album by The Hold Steady can testify, Craig Finn is undoubtedly one of these polymaths.
For Craig Finn’s songs are populated by characters whom you wouldn’t be surprised to find in a Raymond Carver novel. This is a world of drug dealers and addicts and their beautiful yet doomed girls, against a backdrop of religion, redemption and tragedy. He’s capable of creating a whole universe, where the same characters pop up in different songs, and lyrical motifs are used as call-backs. Once you get the taste, it’s a world you never want to leave. Yet, with the future of The Hold Steady seemingly in doubt (Finn has refused to confirm or deny in recent interviews whether the band has broken up), it’s a world that’s changed slightly. Thankfully, Craig Finn is still writing songs, and his second solo album, Faith In The Future, treads familiar lyrical, if not musical, territory.
Even the titles of Finn’s songs conjure up images – Maggie I’ve Been Searching For Our Son, Sarah Calling From A Hotel, I Was Doing Fine Then A Few People Died – are song titles that pull you in, like the blurb of a good book would, to continue the literary metaphor. For these are characters whom you don’t usually find in your common or garden rock song. The protagonist in Maggie I’ve Been Searching For My Son seems to be a survivor of a cult, with talk of belligerent ATF officers, “that guy said he was our saviour” and “handcuffed girls with barely any clothes”. There’s a portentous air of doom surrounding Sarah Calling From A Hotel, as the titular character sneaks a regretful phone call to her ex-lover while her gun-toting boyfriend lurks in the background – Finn’s delivery of the line “the last thing he said to me, as she hung up the phone, was ‘here he comes, oh God, I gotta go'” is enough to send shivers down the spine. There are nods to old Hold Steady songs in the song too – “we watched the horses run up on each other, and she looked pretty” brings to mind the characters in Chips Ahoy.
So far, so wonderfully familiar then. But there’s a big difference in the music that Finn sets to these words. Gone is the exhilarating euphoria of the best of The Hold Steady’s work (arguably, this may have disappeared when Franz Nicolay left the band) and in its place is a restrained wistfulness, strummed acoustic guitars replacing free-wheeling joyful piano riffs. And while that rush of words and music is undoubtedly missed, it’s fair to say that maybe the old Hold Steady approach wouldn’t have worked with these darker, more introspective songs. Ironically, one of the more songs that does remind one of Finn’s old cohorts is the 9/11 referencing Newmyer’s Roof (“we saw the towers go down from up on Newmyer’s roof, yeah, we were frightened, yeah we were drinking, it was all so confusing”), the song’s propulsive urgency bringing to mind another song which references that dark day, Arcade Fire‘s Antichrist Television Blues.
The overall tone though is that of a kind of bruised tenderness, the more sparse arrangements allowing the likes of the beautiful Sandra From Scranton and the downright haunting Christine room to breathe and really come to life. The latter incidentally boasts one of the best opening lines in recent memory: “She went to Memphis, with some dentist she met on some weird website….she came back three days later…she couldn’t speak for a week.” These are the sort of impossibly evocative, endlessly quotable songs that quietly get under your skin, perfectly narrated by Finn’s imitable drawl of a voice. Faith In The Future may lack the life-affirming joie de vivre that The Hold Steady can invoke at their best, but if we’re to hear no more from them, there’s enough here to reaffirm faith in Finn’s future at least.