Craig Finn's new album continues to differentiate his solo material from the Hold Steady, but without Tad Kubler's guitar heroics as a buffer, his lyrics can be pretty harrowing.
On We All Want the Same Things Craig Finn continues to carve out a niche as a solo artist distinct from his band the Hold Steady. This album, his third, feels like a natural progression from 2015’s Faith in the Future, and it’s probably no coincidence that it was also produced by Josh Kaufman. Finn continues to tell his stories in his usual sing-speak style, but sonically he keeps the music low-key. Even when the songs here go uptempo, Finn stays away from the big, crunchy guitar riffs that give the Hold Steady its punch. Instead, he uses a lot of piano and accents it with quiet horn accompaniments and occasional female backing vocals.
Those musical arrangements are critical to separating Finn songs from Hold Steady songs. Finn’s style of lyrics and vocals stay constant regardless of the project, but the Hold Steady’s songwriting starts with guitarist Tad Kubler. Finn seems to make a conscious choice to do something different as a solo songwriter, and how well that pays off may depend on the listener’s engagement level with Finn, the storyteller. There aren’t a lot of sing along songs on Finn’s solo albums; he tends to dig into the nitty-gritty of lower and lower-middle class lives and find pathos with those characters.
If anything, We All Want the Same Things’ combination of storytelling lyrics and arrangements centered on piano and soft horns recalls the quieter moments on latter-day Mountain Goats albums. “It Hits When it Hits” is a good example of this. Skeletal piano chords and quiet woodwinds provide the atmosphere to Finn’s sad tale of a man who falls in love after a one-night stand. He keeps repeating statements like “I can tell that today / Is gonna be a celebration” and “One thing I’ve heard about love is / It hits when it hits.” But Finn’s mumbly, hangdog delivery and his accounts of the woman’s reactions (“I can see you’re suspicious / You say you barely know me”) show that she isn’t nearly as sure as the man. It’s an interesting song, but Finn’s delivery and the nearly two minutes of sad outro music make it a real downer on an album that isn’t exactly full of light. Closer “Be Honest” has a similar arrangement, full of mellow bass clarinet, trumpet long tones, and warm piano chords. But Finn has a lot more energy on this one, which makes his tale of past mistakes and making up for them a whole lot more pleasant. His concluding line, “Maybe it’s best / If we both take care of ourselves” finishes the album on a relatively positive note.
The record’s other notable piano song is “God in Chicago”, which finds Finn speaking his way through the song’s story. That’s a first for him, but it’s a compelling tale, and the simple piano chords and drums give the song a solid musicality. It helps that there is a chorus of sorts, where Finn and Annie Nero sing a duet mid-song to break up the narration. While this is technically a departure for Finn, the main difference between his vocal style on this song and, say, a Hold Steady classic like “How a Resurrection Really Feels” is his energy level. This story is about a couple of people making a road trip to Chicago in the midst of mourning (his friend, her brother), so the tone is contemplative and muted, and that feels appropriate for the story.
Elsewhere on the album are some (slightly) more upbeat tracks. “Rescue Blues” is a mid-tempo song with a bit of a bounce to it, as the narrator describes his codependent relationship with Janie. He’s found safety and comfort at her place (“I overestimate / Make mistakes sometime / Owe money to some other guys / Safest if I stay inside”), she hasn’t had a boyfriend since her husband died in 1999. Their relationship seems mostly convenient, but the narrator concludes he’s way more invested in it now than when they started. “Tangletown” has a feather-light country-rock tone to it, complete with echoing guitars and trumpet/baritone sax accents. But the lyrics take on another codependent relationship, as Finn’s verses explore each person’s viewpoint. The woman uses the man for “finer things” like going out to fancy restaurants and sleeping at his nice house and taking wine with her when she goes. The man likes to “try to hang around some finer things”, like having an attractive young woman around to help distract him from his divorce and failing financial situation. Despite this, he hates the restaurants she chooses and is sad and lonely when she’s inevitably gone in the morning.
“Preludes” and “Tracking Shots” are the record’s two genuinely positive-sounding songs. In “Preludes” Finn reflects (semi-fictionally) about returning to St. Paul, Minnesota, after college and finding that everything is oddly different. In this story, the narrator is saved from a drunk driving accident by driving into a snow bank and later is spared from being killed by deciding to cooperate with a mugger. He concludes, “God watches us,” which is at least a nice sentiment. The music is driven by an upbeat hi-hat and snare rhythm, strummy guitar, and a catchy little flute riff. “Tracking Shots” is a real rocker or at least as close as this album gets to it. Finn sings about parking lots and other mundane locations as the places where life really happens. Meanwhile the drums pound along while guitar, piano, organ, and bass all chug. The trumpet and bari sax even come back to fill in a nice horn line.
We All Want the Same Things is a solid Craig Finn release. If you are a Finn fan jonesing for more of his idiosyncratic storytelling while waiting to see if the Hold Steady reunites with spark plug keyboardist Franz Nicolay for a new album, this record will scratch that itch. The Mountain Goats comparison is inescapable (at least it was for me), although the similarity in arrangements between this album and Transcendental Youth and Beat the Champ mostly serve to illustrate how good John Darnielle is at writing catchy, melodic songs in whatever format he chooses. Finn has succeeded in differentiating his solo material from his Hold Steady work, but sometimes I wonder if his low-key musical approach highlights the depressing nature of his storytelling a bit too much. But most listeners know what they’re signing up for with Finn at this point.