If one hasn’t bought in to Finn’s working-class rock poet shtick already, this album is unlikely to change minds.
Craig Finn is the kind of songwriter that comes to mind when one thinks of an artist working in one discipline while trying to satisfy their craving to work in another. Succinctly, Finn is a musician who really, really wants to be a poet or novelist. His lyrics, both in his work with the Hold Steady and on his four solo albums, are dense and packed with both tactile imagery and allusions to his literary heroes. While Finn is no less verbose on I Need a New War, his fourth solo album and third since his last release with the Hold Steady, his focus has shifted drastically as he steps away from raucous bar rock and towards a quieter, more personal perspective.
“Personal” is a relative term for Craig Finn, though. The man rarely writes in the first person, and when he does, it’s more often in the guise of one of his many characters rather than an attempt to reveal something true and honest. Instead, Finn crafts tales of working-class woe and despondency; his aim seems to be to craft a version of Darkness on the Edge of Town for Gen-Xers and millennials. There’s no celebration here, only the dim light of the horizon that seems to be fading fast. Whatever joy that exists in these characters’ lives comes in the little things: the speaker on “Magic Marker” lives a workaday existence after being physically and emotionally scarred by war, and the only pleasure he takes anymore is tagging his name with the titular writing instrument. It’s a natural progression for Finn to make—one would assume that the loud, animated parties of Hold Steady songs would lead to a hell of a hangover—and this more solemn approach ends up suiting him quite well.
However, one can’t necessarily shake the issue that for as talented as Finn is as a lyricist, he’s a traditionalist to a fault when it comes to composing songs. Finn was always indebted to a string of classic rock heroes (as much as his early songs claim otherwise, the dude’s more Petty than punk), and I Need a New War really only stands out in that he switches to a different sort of classic rock aping. In essence, he’s in the Serious Unplugged Album phase of an old rocker’s career, and he tries to write more structured, composed music. To the extent that this works (and it doesn’t always work), it ends up clashing with his freewheeling lyrical style. There’s the hints of a mature, affecting work in I Need a New War, but the different elements of Finn’s songwriting style clash too much for the album to coalesce in the way that he wants it to.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see where Finn can go from here. His lyrical talents continue to improve, yet he seems too grounded in his musical comfort zone to make anything beyond what both he and his audience would find familiar and safe. As a result, I Need a New War serves as both a step forward and a holding pattern as Finn attempts to run a marathon while standing perfectly still. The effort put in is admirable, sure, but if one hasn’t bought in to Finn’s working-class rock poet shtick already, this album is unlikely to change minds.