The new Craig Finn album sounds like a Craig Finn album. That’s not to say it’s redundant – the touches of jazz are nice – but that Finn does what he does. It makes sense; after all, Finn describes I Need a New War as the third part of a trilogy (2015’s Faith in the Future and 2017’s We All Want the Same Things make up the other two-thirds). That makes this record either the culmination of years of sharp writing or just a comfortable fit on the shelf. Even though Finn doesn’t stretch himself here, his detailed characterizations and skillful lyricism keep the album from being a retread.
The title phrase comes from “Grant at Galena”, a piece central to the album. Finn’s characters struggle in the quotidian. Maybe the Minnesota teens from the Hold Steady had epic visions of life, but these people fight just to get into work for the day. They make it to work, for whatever it’s worth, and press on. The singer of “Grant” needs new battles to fight. He did the right things, but it doesn’t matter. The power’s cut off, and he is caught in emptiness, “high in the bath”. He finally finds usefulness in taking care of an injured bird that’s flown into a wall. His prayers for it feel both silly and significant. The soft female backing vocals create a dialogue with the singer’s limited endeavor.
The steady rhythms of “Magic Marker” tackle the effects of a literal war. A vet returns home from Desert Storm, drifts around and struggles to find “something to hold on to”. The track could easily have fallen into cliché – soldier returns to hard times – but Finn’s precise writing creates a very specific character. When he becomes elliptical in singing, “It’s been 20 years / Since what we call the accident,” it carries an emotional impact. The drift and the loss and the things we don’t talk about settle down in a magic marker, when “it just feels good to write your name”. In under four minutes, Finn details a complete biography that sticks.
That type of writing puts Finn in his wheelhouse, and the album’s full of similar characters, and the songs mostly hint (“Indications” wanders a bit much). “Something to Hope For” twists the struggle narrative when the singer comes into some money after an accident and takes the opportunity to turn apparent bad luck into a new start. The song maintains it’s realism; there’s no evidence that this new start leads to permanent stability. Even so, hope comes through, and Finn’s Springsteen influences drive the music and narrative toward something bigger than the “darkness in the taverns” that the character is used to.
That hope isn’t the sole light in the album. Part of what makes Finn’s characters engaging is the courage with which they often face their challenges. He continues that work here with tales that feel comfortable within his catalog. I Need a New War delivers its stories with the skill we’ve come to expect, and fans will likely be more than satisfied. At the same time, Finn’s been telling these stories for a while, and the completion of a trilogy suggests it he might be starting to look elsewhere. If so, War makes for a nice conclusion to this run.