Craig Finn has been honing his abilities as a frontman and vocalist for a couple of decades now. First, he led the mostly-overlooked Lifter Puller before moving on to start the Hold Steady. After that band found success, Finn began to release material under his name. His solo work has been interesting, as he seems to have often made conscious choices to avoid the type of raucous, catchy bar rock that makes the Hold Steady so endearing.
What hasn’t changed much throughout these different projects is Finn’s storytelling. More than even his vocals, Finn’s lyrics stand out for being detailed but succinct narratives. Usually, they involve people who are down on their luck, more often than not, drugs are involved, and sometimes there’s criminal activity. When those lyrics are removed from the big hooks of the Hold Steady, though, the harrowing aspects of these stories are much more noticeable.
A Legacy of Rentals is Finn’s fifth solo album. More importantly, it’s his first since the Hold Steady reunited with keyboardist Franz Nicolay and started making music again. With the Hold Steady once again an active concern, Finn seems to have made a particular effort to keep the music low-key on this new record.
Quiet synth burbles open the album. After a few seconds, acoustic guitar strums join in, and Finn sings the refrain, “Sundown, it feels like I’m riding a train I’m not on”, a couple of times while a tenor sax buzzes, very low in the mix. Then he launches into a spoken word story about Rachel, a woman this character used to spend a lot of time with. It’s a pretty typical Finn story, featuring a pair of people who are down on their luck and filled with everyday details. The background music flows and ebbs as the song goes along, as drums, piano, and violin join in. The story meanders, though Finn makes sure to return to the refrain from time to time to remind the listener that there is a melody somewhere in the song.
The track, “Messing With the Settings”, goes on for nearly six minutes, but it doesn’t feel like that because of Finn’s storytelling prowess. Eventually, he gets to the hook around the four-minute mark that finally contextualizes the tale. “Rachel did her best with the deal she’d been dealt / And that’s what I’ve got for a eulogy.” The extended outro repeats the refrain many times, but with harmonized vocals from Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins instead of Finn’s. The band lightly jams it out, particularly the piano, organ, and violin, and it’s a gradual musical departure that fits very well with the story’s tone.
One other track on A Legacy of Rentals, “A Break From the Barrage”, features Finn doing an outright spoken word story. This one also runs about six minutes and drifts along as it describes 24 hours in the life of a nameless woman. Soft percussion and echoing electric guitar provide most of the music. Every now and then, in place of a repeating chorus, Finn, Nero, and Jenkins sing wordy asides to the main story. In the narrative, the woman has a one-night stand in her car, realizes it’s sunrise and calls in sick to work. The song follows her as she drives out into the suburbs, gets a pint of vodka, goes to a matinee movie, puts the vodka in her soda, sleeps it off, and drives back to the city only to return to the same bar she started in the night before. Musically the song lazily drifts, an uneventful track to match an intentionally uneventful story. Yet Craig is so good at the storytelling aspect that it’s compelling despite itself.
“Birthdays” is probably the most upbeat song on the album. It still pulses along at midtempo, but the piano and bass bop along with energy and Stuart Bogie’s tenor sax solos really lift the song. Even Finn’s vocal melody is unusually lively. The record’s other energetic track, “Never Any Horses”, would probably qualify as a ballad on many albums, but it sounds almost exciting here. The fuzzed-out guitar leads help as they build the song to multiple high points. Finn takes the perspective of a man recounting memories of the time he spent on a ranch, complete with horseback riding. He also remembers a feast where the “Caterers were New Wave / And the cooks were all Nü Metal.” As the song goes on and he calls his ex to confirm the story, she does the opposite, destroying his romanticized version of events and clarifying that it was a much more mundane experience.
Finn also spends a couple of songs telling small stories about organized crime. “The Amarillo Kid” is a first-person narrative heavy on the details but very light on the big picture. With a thin drumbeat, 1980s synth flourishes, simple guitar picking, and an insistent bassline, Finn describes how he got a job in Buffalo, New York. He was given a car, a place to live, a pistol, and the titular nickname. Eventually, this person left the job, though. He finishes out the song by saying, “Didn’t think they had the wherewithal to hunt me down out west.”
“Curtis and Shepherd” lopes along on an electronic beat and organ chords and follows the two title characters. Shepherd is a man with someone keeping tabs on his movements. Curtis has a vague job with “independent trucks”, a “Tricky little business / It’s hard to thread that needle / To build a clear consensus / With independent people.” Eventually, Curtis is activated by the unseen people in charge and sent to dispatch Shepherd, which he does without hesitation.
Most of the stories in A Legacy of Rentals tell a straightforward narrative, even if some details are obscured. The exception is “Due to Depart”, which opens with a gently loping drumbeat and bassline and simple guitar chords. Finn sings about getting a text from a friend about an accident and is told, “You better come quick / It’s hard to really say what might happen.” After this introduction, though, Finn’s character describes casually getting out of bed, taking his time at the Mini Mart, and reminiscing about his life and family. He eventually gets around to speeding down the highway service road and closes by saying, “It’s so hard to know / The right time to show it / But you know when you’re due to depart.” It seems like the perspective shifts after the first verse to the person involved in the collision. Listeners have to piece that together themselves, though, because Finn doesn’t give any obvious indication musically, tonally, or even lyrically at first that anything has changed.
Since these are Craig Finn stories, there’s a decent chance that some or even all of the songs on A Legacy of Rentals are connected. In Lifter Puller and the early days of the Hold Steady, in particular, these sorts of connections were made explicit. Characters and locations would reoccur, even though the records didn’t put the events in chronological order. At this point, however, Finn is a bit subtler in his presentation.
“The Amarillo Kid” never names himself in the song, but he hides out from his bosses “out West”. Then in “Curtis and Shepherd”, Curtis tracks Shepherd down in Riverside, California. Was Shepherd The Amarillo Kid? We don’t know for sure. “Messing With the Settings” specifically mentions spending time in “the taverns”, while “A Break From the Barrage” also uses the word “taverns” to talk about where its unnamed protagonist ends up. It could be that Rachel from the former is also the main character of the latter. Then there’s the “fish tank.” Finn uses that particular term in four different songs, an unusual repetition that could be making even more, almost subconscious, connections between his stories. It’s hard to tell for sure, though.
These storytelling details make Finn’s work well worth revisiting multiple times. His focus on the everyday this time around makes the album experience a bit less stressful for listeners, which is welcome. On the other hand, the music seems primarily built to support the lyrics, particularly on this record. That means it’s mostly functional, and only a handful of choruses and musical passages manage to stand out on their own. That sets Finn’s solo material apart from the Hold Steady.