Do you want me to tell it like it’s boy meets girl and the rest is history,
or do you want it like a murder mystery?
I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story
— The Hold Steady, ‘Charlemagne In Sweatpants’
The imagery of film has long been running through the music of Craig Finn. His are characters attempting to live up to imagined ideas of Good Times, kids searching desperately to achieve an impossible, televisual experience — a technicolour life. Lifter Puller was the dreamer period, residual adolescent naivety suggesting everything was an opening scene to some great quest, the first rung on an ever-escalating adventure experienced only by the type of hero who never dies. The Hold Steady was the refusal-to-take-no-for-an-answer stage, a forging ahead with the drugs and the drinking and the not-sleeping in the hope of breaking through to the other side, or else achieving something like martyrdom. Lifter Puller journeyed toward something, then The Hold Steady tried to run away.
If Craig Finn’s solo career is telling us anything, it’s that the As Seen On TV idea applies not just to dreams but memories too. Those lucky enough to make it out and settle down in the closest thing to reality they can find are no longer haunted by the future but the past too—a past cut and edited, abridged and set to music, reduced to light and sound. A past with all physical sensations removed and replaced with the wispy-but-alluring ghost of a once-held sense of invincibility.
We All Want The Same Things, Finn’s third solo release, is a careful and sympathetic examination of this great dissatisfaction, a record full of people making do and pulling through in the hope that they’ll find something in which to believe. After a jazzy interlude, opener ‘Jester & June’ makes clear his intentions immediately, the opening verse pretty much one tumbling line that perpetuates itself, stretching with each continuation, as though vitally important that a few more words are voiced. As you expect from Finn, the lyrics are conversational and packed with imagery, like the words of some half-drunk stranger desperately dragging you through their lives, trying to convey who and what and why they are, hoping you see it from their position, in that magical light.
“We would drink and fall in love
Drink and fall in love
Fall around the clubs
They used to call us Jester and June
We used to know all the tunes
We used to have our own church
But then it got worse”
As we described in an earlier preview, ‘Preludes’ “chart[s] a mid-90s return from college pitched at the exact point where loneliness and freedom intersect,” a semi-autobiographical take on a someone suddenly structureless and adrift. A similar sensation needles the characters of ‘Ninety Bucks,’ the narrator Nathan trying to help a bummed-out friend get into nursing school (“Stick with it and finally see it through / I’m sick of all this wilderness”), as she drinks vodka neat from paper cups and chasese the titular loan through what could be sincerity or flattery or just plain mistruth. ‘Birds Trapped in the Airport’ unfurls with ambient flourishes, sounding like the first tentative steps after some great change, high on freedom yet shaking in the face of the commitment, settling instead for a single night of respite carved from the car wreck of her life.
‘God in Chicago’ pushes further into poetic territory, like a Denis Johnson story knocked two notches back toward realism, a continual, everyday sadness permeating the fabric of ordinary things. A mom finds her son to be the latest casualty of the opioid epidemic, and a sister contacts her brother’s old friend to take care of some ‘unfinished business’ (“It’s roughly the size of a baseball”), before deciding to join him on a trip to Chicago to fence the stash. “The transaction was easy,” Finn says. “And counting all the money in front of him seemed silly / This isn’t the movies.” Deciding to stay the night, the sojourn becomes a mutual act of grieving, the pair finding comfort if not redemption amidst the city lights. However, the tale ends as quickly as it began, summoning nostalgia before it’s even over, the sort of memory that sits in the mind and grows impossibly brilliant, forever overpowering whatever the present might bring. Aware of this, the characters deflate on the drive home, dejected and depressed for having to return to Real Life. But, as Finn said, this isn’t the movies.
Perhaps the clearest statement of the record’s themes, ‘Rescue Blues’ finds a protagonist hiding out in the apartment of a kind semi-stranger, a widow he knows from the grocery store who shelters him from the men to whom he owes money. “Safest if I stay inside,” he says. “Jamie’s place is clean, her TV’s six feet wide, 250 channels coming crisp and clear through satellites.” The cynical view of the arrangement is one of self-preservation, something the narrator himself admits (he hasn’t told his friends at the pub as “They think I’m only doing this to have some place to hang my head”), but despite an absence of love, the relationship appears to scratch some common itch, another sign of the human connection that has always been part of Finn’s writing.
‘Tangletown’ finds a people ghosting through their own lives, working and sleeping and fooling around, positioning themselves near expensive items as though luxury (or the illusion thereof) might halt their downward spin. This is followed by slow-burn ballad ‘It Hits When It Hits’, something between Springsteen and The National, its tale of unexpected love cycling around to the same sentences and abstract imagery until meaning begins to seep through the repetition, although I suppose whether you believe the emotions on show are genuine depends on your levels of cynicism.
The breathless yet joyous ‘Tracking Shots’ confronts images head on, as though snapping to from the hypnotized notion of recreating movie scenes as the secret entrance to capital-L Love. “Still getting used to the new dream,” Finn sings, his characters not necessarily any better for the realization but at least more able to appreciate that which they do have. And, while what they have might be non-dramatic and banal, Finn’s knack for rhythm and cadence is more than capable of elevating such things into sacred territory:
“A way to live
A train to make
The whistle blows
The metal scrapes
The lighters and the burners
The kettle and the steam
Weekends at the water parks
Shut your eyes and shudder at the laughter and the screams”
While still focused on an individual, ‘Be Honest’ links the personal to a wider context, grounding the rest of the album so it feels less a gaggle of dysfunctional characters and more a survey of our times. These are people hurting despite no great dramatic arcs, suffering amidst a cast of six billion, a smallness that’s an insult to the general injury we call life. And worse, they’re suffering in prosperous times and spaces–years free of great wars and catastrophe, an age of science and medicine and relative freedom in which we have everything and more (“It’s not pain,” Finn sings. “It’s just a pressure but in some ways that’s much worse”). Sometimes there’s little to do but hope for something better, and sometimes this hope is all a person has to cling to. “If revolution is really coming,” goes the final line, “then we all need to be well / So maybe it’s just best if we both take care of ourselves.”
Most reviews link this sentence to the current political situation, though there’s a danger that pushing everything through the Trumpian prism collapses some of the intricacies and nuances of art. After all, The Donald is a product of the disaffection Finn is exploring here, not the cause. The problem is deeper and more complex than any government-related trouble, and Finn is too wise to offer much in the way of an answer. Instead, he suggests we shift the focus of our questions. Because We All Want the Same Things is an album about relationships, but not in the usual sense. Not the transcendental, star-aligned love of Billboard hits and Hollywood flicks but coupling based on common needs. Not life-changing answers but life-preserving strategies. Luckily, in the hands of Craig Finn, this version of ‘romance’ feels somehow more fulfilling, the opposite of cynical, for better or for worse, genuinely human. Perhaps the revolution in the conclusion isn’t some violent revolt or epiphanic break, rather a gradual yet constant commitment to challenging our own expectations. To stop wanting too much for ourselves and to start being sympathetic to others. A comeback story, of sorts.
We All Want The Same Things is out now via Partisan Records, and you can grab a copy from the Craig Finn Pledge Music website.