I went to see the Hold Steady in London the other week – no word of a lie here, it was one of the top ten concerts of all time.
Right at the end of the main set, their singer Craig Finn stood there, arms outstretched in what Soundgarden might have referred to as the “Jesus Christ Pose” and screamed: “and that is how a resurrection really feels….”
So if you can view The Hold Steady as the righteous resurrection, the communal genius, if you like, of one of the finest rock n roll bands on the planet, then maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to view Finn’s solo work as the confessional.
“I Need A New War” is his third solo record, but this one more than the others is informed by the flavours, the textures and dark of New York City.
Finn has called that place home for 18 years – around the same time as he formed THS in his early 30s. And if you live in a big metropolis you sometimes forget you become immersed in its culture, assimilated to its rhythms.
I live on the outskirts of England’s second largest city. I have done for 41 of my 43 years on this planet, and you don’t notice. At least you don’t until someone says something to jolt you. A friend of mine came up for a gig the day before I saw The Hold Steady. They live away from the big conurbations. We were driving away from the venue at about 11pm, the usual roadworks and Friday night traffic problems caused me to take a long way home. Looking out of the window, my friend says: “I couldn’t live here. It never ends.”
Those words resonated with me when I heard this line: “That’s the funny thing about people who move to big cities, they spend so much time trying to turn it into their tiny town…..”
That comes on “Bathtub In The Kitchen”, on which Finn tells a tale that seems – like all his best work – to be deeply personal, yet also has a universal quality.
What is interesting with his solo work in general, but “…..War” in particular, is that while the lyrics and delivery are unmistakably Craig Finn, the music is a world away from The Hold Steady.
And that’s exactly how it should be too.
So what that means in practice is that whilst on the album opener, ”Blankets” the character is dissecting a failed love affair (“it got druggy and we crumbled, but I never ever didn’t love her”) the music has a more singer/songwriter flavour, even down to the harmonica break.
What is crucial here, though, is the backing vocals. They add a real soulful edge, to this and many of the others. “Magic Marker” has a kind of metronomic quality, and the horn section is to the fore as it is throughout.
“Indications” is a slice of full on soul, a timeless quality perhaps, while “Grant At Galena” gives the record its title – “I Need A New War” is a refrain from the track – but the symbolism of it is the clever bit.
Galena is the former home of the Ulysses Grant, the former US Army General turned President, and the inference is that people need the battle, they relish it, they come through it. They do their best to survive.
And that, really is what this record is about.
“Something To Hope For” (“you’ve been hurt so much you’re bored…..”) is a slice of dark pop music, while “Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today” is like the Flaming Lips at their most laid back, while the sense of longing that informs most of these tales is right shot through this.
“Holyoke” is a lush, slow, methodical piece of music, as far from The Hold Steady as you can imagine, but yet somehow would fit perfectly on one of their albums too.
“Her With The Blues” is almost jazz. Listening to the album the first time I did in the small hours of the morning gave this a real fragile, dark feel.
That unsettling underbelly continues in the last song “Anne Marie And Shane”, while the guitar line and the vocals match the lyrics perfectly. The words: “she left some key parts out, some things she didn’t want to say…..” seem to sum up the record, but it’s the gaps here, the things left unsaid, that make these ten songs so beguiling.
“I Need A New War” is a continuation, in many ways of “We All Want The Same Things”, Finn’s solo record from a couple of years back. Not sonically, particularly, but certainly in that it feels like a fully-fledged solo album from what is now a fully-fledged – and incredibly interesting – solo artist.