Craig Finn’s lyricism could just as easily be classed as poetry, prose or short story telling. His turn of phrase and timing are a delight throughout I Need A New War, his fourth solo album.
In just a few minutes, Finn manages to create scenes and characters movie directors spend hours crafting. His dramatic delivery is every bit as powerful as a high budget Hollywood thriller. In I Need A New War he takes us through veterans, hopeless relationships, hardship, accidents at work and more. It’s Americana rooted in realism rather than the romantic nostalgia of diners and late night driving. Every song’s character is vivid in your mind’s eye, likely with a Tolkien style back story which didn’t make it into the lyrics.
With imagery of the bathtub in the kitchen, graveyards “every other mile” in Holyoke, or the injured bird in Grant At Galena, Finn takes the seemingly mundane details to create beautifully layered scenes in his songs. With such accurate writing, Finn steers us but our own imaginations do the rest.
Many of the album’s songs build around a character, usually to a reveal or turning point where the strands of their stories fall into place. Most effectively used in Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today, Finn charts the day of a woman in a dead end relationship, considering leaving her partner, phoning in sick to work and driving to the wide openness of South Dakota. But, like so many, she reverts to habit and returns home to what she comes home to every other day, with the final clinching line – “It’s just hard to keep from crying / When there’s nothing more to say.” As in many of the songs, while Carmen is at an all-time low, she isn’t without hope. It’s a balance Finn manages perfectly, and with that sliver of hope we root for and empathise with his characters, rather than write them off in pity.
I Need A New War is musically diverse, with strings, horns, harmonica, synths and clarinet sitting alongside the more traditional guitar-based backing. Finn played some of these songs on a solo stint supporting Brian Fallon, and while his lyrics and voice shone, the solitary guitar line failed to do these songs justice. Produced by Josh Kaufman, the music is layered and interesting. Backing vocals in Something To Hope For feel out of step with the timing, but still somehow sit perfectly to compliment Finn’s lead and staccato horns. Her With The Blues has an almost Tom Waits-style jazz swing to it, complete with clarinet lead, while Magic Marker takes off with a brass middle section. Much like the lyrics, the music builds and often has a reveal or unexpected but perfectly complementary twist.
There isn’t a second wasted on I I Need A New War. It sits like a musical answer to the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs, with characters, scenes and scenarios crafted perfectly by Finn’s astute lyricism. And like many classic stories, you’re likely to find new layers, meaning and detail the more you listen.