Fire Note Says: The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn finds his own voice, a stark story teller juxtaposing a bleak world view with uplifting music.
Album Review: Craig Finn’s songs, with his band The Hold Steady and on his two previous solo releases, have always felt like short stories set to music, but never before in the spoken word narrative style of “God in Chicago.” Over quiet chords on a piano, Finn tells a tale that touches on familiar themes from previous works: a road trip from St. Paul to Chicago for a drug deal, followed by a drunken night on the town, the lustful longing for connection to ward off grief, the hung-over drive home all haunted by the memory of the brother/friend who had died, and the sense that God was watching over it all.
As with all storytellers that matter, it’s Finn’s attention to detail, his ability to find nuggets of normal human discourse that resonate as a universal understanding, and like a smart poet let the words and story speak for themselves. Sometimes the tensions of the tale may remain unrelieved in the end, but that’s often the way it is in real life. Not every story is a morality play with a lesson to be learned, sometimes the lesson is “this stuff happened,” and this too shall pass.
Finn has often been too easily compared to Bruce Springsteen, no doubt one of his strongest influences, but here Finn has found a different musical path that feels more original. Often constructed around a smart musical hook and a clever lyric, Finn’s songs seem to float by on lush beds of vocals, horns, and the occasional solo. In “Tangletown” he captures a co-dependent relationship between a party girl and a older business man who’s made some questionable choices, but they both enjoy, suggests Finn, “the finer things.” In the up-tempo rock & roll of “Tracking Shots,” Finn sets his characters running as fast as they can against “the predictable plots,” “hoping we could rise above, something like love would be close enough.”
Finn’s rather deadpan vocal delivery relies on a flute to soften the chorus of “Preludes” as he describes a world in chaos because life is often harder than it looks and we all make mistakes. But despite the grim take on reality, there’s a natural progression as the Finn’s voice grows more confident that with each turn through “Rescue Blues” that even though real life is nothing like the TV shows where the good guy always wins, that “I guess we all get by in different ways.” And that assurance runs through the 10 stories that make up this record, where Finn gives voice to one character who admits that “the one thing I know about love is that it hits when it hits,” but that conflicts with his assurance in “It Hits When It Hits,” that “today is going to be a celebration,” the very idea rings of dashed hopes and dreams. Still as the song concludes with nearly 90 seconds of what feels like church bells ringing slowly in the distance while the band’s sound dissolves into feedback, there’s a rugged persistence expressed.
The last time out The Hold Steady wrapped Finn’s melodic storylines in hard rocking guitars in a valiant effort to turn his darker leanings into party anthems, which provided just the right amount of tension. Here and on 2015’s Faith in the Future, Finn spreads his solo wings and left to his own devices, offers a broader musical palette, and manages to develop his own unique voice often juxtaposing darker sentiments with up-lifting music. The world view remains pretty bleak, as he sings in the closing “Be Honest,” where he concludes: “ain’t it funny how we all get by, but not the way the makes us laugh,” but it’s leavened by the rich horn arrangement to that suggest survival and living to tell the tale is still the best revenge.
Key Tracks: “Preludes” / “Tangletown” / “Tracking Shots”
Artists With Similar Fire: The Hold Steady / The Pixies / Paul Westerberg
Craig Finn Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb