The world-weary characters of Craig Finn's latest solo release, I Need A New War, have every right to call it a day. They crash on couches after accidents that don't get talked about. They drive, battling traffic on congested streets, seeking escape on the open road. They live in less-than-ideal apartments; letting bills pile up, the power gets disconnected. The city breaks them after years spent trying.
In absence of regular Hold Steady shows, frontman Craig Finn's toured steadily in support of his solo material, dating back to 2012 debut, Clear Heart Full Eyes. And though it may be tempting to consider his solo output simply an in-between, Finn's evolution in recent years proves otherwise. Following 2015's Faith in the Future and 2017's We All Want the Same Things, I Need a New War completes what Finn's called a trilogy. Ambitiously detailed and thematically cohesive, it's a satisfying conclusion to the saga he started a few years ago.
Again working with Josh Kaufman, Joe Russo and D. James Goodwin, I Need a New War uses the same sonic palette as those earlier installments: Across its 10 tracks, horns and harmonies accent Finn's delivery. On standouts "Magic Marker" and "Grant at Galena," backing vocals from Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins surround his words with striking contrast. The effect is a more subdued sound than the Hold Steady's rowdy rumble; Finn's lyrics – more spoken than screamed – are front and center, spotlit rather than competing for attention.
That quietude befits the record's sometimes bleak storylines. Faith in the Future, in keeping with its name, offered a sense of hopefulness, even in chaos; We All Want the Same Things focused its gaze on relationships and the ways in which we live in communion with one another. Using New York City as both inspiration and scenery, I Need a New War is fixated on both resignation and resiliency.
Set in the present day, the record relays expansive stories that unfold over individuals' lifetimes ("Blankets," "Magic Marker"). The details are recognizable, like the adulthood signifiers of office jobs and shoulder bags. And the emotions are relatable – the unfamiliarity of rental cars, the satisfaction of stability when you finally have a little more in your bank account that you once did. Toward the end of the record on "Holyoke," Finn describes an extremely modern sentiment related to the way we consume media today: "Once I start on something, I get obsessed about the ending," he sings. "Like once we start a show, we watch every single episode." That quest for resolution comes through: Though conclusions aren't always tidy, they're certainly hard-fought.
These days, the Hold Steady's in a vexing predicament. It's a band that still maintains an intense fan following, but it doesn't function with the usual machinations of a touring band. Over the past year, the band's released new tracks direct to streaming services. And in its current iteration, the band sets up shop in a city a few times a year – New York, London or Toronto, for instance – and plays a string of shows over a short period.
There's a fatigue that can come with fandom for a long-running band, but there's also a sense of fulfillment in watching an enduring artist continue to find meaning all these years in. At this stage of his career, Finn's become a reliable fixture, and repeat listenings through his discography are rewarded. This latest entry is further proof of his consistency and longevity.