The Hold Steady inspire devoted and committed fans, organised loosely under the name of the Unified Scene. The band have a back catalog of dense and complex records with their own mythology through re-occurring characters and themes. For the clueless or the curious, there’s a fan Wiki website mapping it out. Lead singer Craig Finn is responsible for infusing much of the passion, but the band’s sound and ethos is distinctly a communal effort, making any solo release a tricky proposition.
Finn’s second solo record comes hot on the heels of the Hold Steady’s well received 2014 album Teeth Dreams. With this record still on fans’ minds, it could be said that the pressure is on, and Finn is an artist who tends to take his rock ‘n’ roll responsibilities seriously; Teeth Dreams referenced David Foster Wallace in one song, and Finn’s approach is not far away from the ideals of “new sincerity”. It seems entirely appropriate then that Faith in the Future was partnered with PledgeMusic, and as part of the funding campaign fans could, for example, spend an afternoon record shopping with Finn or join him at a baseball game.
Much of the material on Faith in the Future was written after the passing of Finn’s mother, and although none of the songs directly address that loss, the themes of perseverance and finding redemption are found throughout the album. This is indeed familiar territory for Hold Steady fans; despite the sincere approach, Finn always counter-balances the songs with a dose of realism. “Maggie, I’ve Been Searching for our Son” traces one person’s struggle to find answers as he crosses America; despite enduring hard times and eventually falling in with a cult in the desert, he keeps faith that “there’s a heaven yet to come”.
The music is upbeat but washed-out, capturing the blur of the protagonist’s travel, and his dismay at modern life through a factual reference to the Aurora cinema shooting. “Roman Guitars” is less direct but takes the music one step further through an eccentric arrangement, well suited for a song concerned with the co-existence of science and magic. “Newmyer’s Roof” is more straightforward but hardly simple, musically or narratively; it rushes from a hotel lobby to a car, to a film studio, to a rooftop watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11 (interestingly, or not, the album’s release date is also 9/11). With a dark bite (Doubting Thomas likes the narrator much better when he’s walking away), the song is kept together by Finn’s way with words and a typically modern and snappy cinematic style. The imagery is tough and foreboding, “party supplies” provided, because, “he said he likes how it looks / when I roll back my eyes”. The backing is appropriately chaotic, at times almost experimental.
After three squalling songs evoking 21st century angst, “Sarah, Calling From a Hotel” arrives just in time to provide quieter reflection about an ex-lover who’s fled to a more financially stable but less emotionally secure situation. As the song suggests, it’s a case of swings and roundabouts: “every time you take a lover / you trade one thing for another”. “Going to a Show” is also ruminative, taking in an older rock fan’s experience of going to gigs to consider that “some nights it just seems like the same old thing, some nights it feels like a new frontier”. Finn’s attention to detail and his dark humor ensures our engagement, comically describing the “same old people” in attendance, most of them looking “pretty old now”, and rarely leaving their homes. Similarly one of the characters admits to his knowledge of some dudes who have “dabbled in drugs”, and then the dudes who “went pretty much pro”. Delivered in a downbeat drawl, it’s hard not to be impressed by the drôle tone.
The faith in the future of the title sets us up for an optimistic record, but the hard-worn delivery and stories suggest optimism as a prize to capture. Faith is definitively lacking in the Sunday night dread of “Sandra from Scranton”, unless of course that faith is the certainty that things are only going to get worse. Despite shiny shoes and great expectations, Sandra has medical reasons for her prescriptions, she’s bored with music and no longer hits the shows. For a music fan like Finn, and the universe of Hold Steady positivity, this is surely a character at rock bottom.
“St. Peter Upside Down” is at least more musically cheerful, despite one of the characters in the song effectively arguing that betrayal and disloyalty are just part of survival. Two oblique but important comparisons are made: to the narrator, who is from “another planet” because he’s desperate to make a “connection”, and to St. Peter, who asked to be crucified upside down because he felt he was not worthy of dying in the same way as Jesus. Finn is big on religious imagery in his songwriting, and this album is no exception.
Overall there is much to commend on this album, and fans of the Hold Steady may find it more accessible than Finn’s debut. “Trapper Avenue” almost hits a sing-along towards its end, with all the difficult locals waving from the windows. It’s a comic conclusion when we’re in a dangerous place, with guys who will sell you tickets to a car crash and kids who will try to kill you at the carwash. The reason why we’re there is because the central characters are looking to score, and although Finn doesn’t necessarily live the life of high times he describes, he may be advocating that a life with some danger is better than a life without any risk at all. As if to prove the point, the protagonist in “Christine” lacks the confidence to take any chances and does not commit to the object of his affection; as a result neither him nor Christine find fulfillment.
Some may say it’s self-indulgent to wallow in such misery, but the Smiths made a career out of it, and Finn always throws in a glimmer of hope when customarily rooting for the underdog. After so many gloomy and disheartening portraits of life, closer “I Was Doing Fine (Then a Few People Died)” is, musically anyway, a surprisingly light piece of pop. Despite the jauntiness, the girl in the song is drinking away her troubles; only some nights she tries to “get noticed”, but in the world of Faith in the Future this is at least something, even if it’s more than probable that she’ll end up with the wrong person. To quote Elliott Murphy, you never know what you’re in for. Yet despite the unknown future and the ever shaky present, Finn’s adept and poetic lyrics along with some challenging music ensure there are some dark thrills on this perilous ride.