Review Summary: Small-town stories, bigger lessons.
I don’t know Craig Finn – personally, or even musically – but after listening to I Need A New War
, I feel like I’ve known him my whole life. There’s something about the music he writes on this album that makes you feel depressingly at home. The kind of people you meet in all walks of life pop up in his stories, like Francis – a well-meaning friend who let Finn crash on his couch during hard times, but won’t seem to let him forget: “Francis did me a favor I’ll always remember” / “But I can’t keep saying thank you” / “Francis, is there someway to help that's not just handing you money？” Then there’s Carmen, a woman who met a man she thought she could help, and is now weighed down: “Late for work while he's still sleeping, put a twenty on the counter with a note there right beside it that says, ‘have a decent day’” / “When she gets back on the highway, there's the urge to keep on going” / “Came home and found him sleeping, in the same place that she'd left him” / “It's just hard to keep from crying, when there's nothing more to say.” I Need A New War
recounts the sad monotony of Nowhere, America, and nobody tells it better than Craig Finn.
These people feel like more than just characters within a concept album because they are. Each song in the story is a piece to the puzzle, and the album’s themes represent the bigger picture: self-absorbed relative “nobodies”, wallowing in their misery and trying to outrun their problems until they cease to exist. Finn carefully weaves these personal anecdotes with broader philosophical strokes – like “you travel your whole life just to get out to the place you're gonna die” – and that’s what I mean when I say that the album makes you feel depressingly at home. All these characters are likely to seem familiar to some degree, whether it’s Francis, Carmen, Craig Finn himself, or Anne Marie and Shane – a couple in an abusive relationship: “Anne Marie loves Shane so much, but sometimes Shane can get a little rough” / “She thinks it's just the way they brought him up” / “If you're gonna start tonight, the cops gonna come, I know you're not that brave” / “Anne Marie came back on a bus on her own, moved into the basement of her step-father's home” / “If I were you, I wouldn't even ask about Shane…some things she didn't wanna say.” I Need A New War
projects this string of unfortunate cases as a larger statement: This is what makes up our world, these sad tales of greed, neglect, and abuse.
The record is one where the lyrics outweigh the need for a sense of musical adventure; there’s nothing upbeat or exhilarating about the state of affairs here, so we get Finn’s Kozelek-meets-Oberst brand of talk-singing rather than warm melodies or experimental songwriting. In all honesty, nothing else would really fit this album anyway. The rambling nature of Finn’s delivery adds to the immersive storytelling, where listeners are focused on Finn’s lyrics – and what’s going to happen next to the characters in these stories – rather than worrying about hooks, riffs, or even the music at all. That isn’t to say that the album offers nothing in that area, but when Finn decides to figuratively dot his i’s, it feels like you’ve arrived at a momentous occasion – like the string-swept ‘Indications’, replete with hazy ahh
’s and a gorgeous brass section. In crafting a monotonous vocal/delivery tone from the start, Finn sets himself up to capitalize with these subtle accents, which feel even more illustrious thanks to the comparatively bland musical context. It’s why the jazzy, almost Destroyer-reminiscent “Her With The Blues’ seems so rich and textured, and why the titular mantra of “I need a new war!” on ‘Grant at Galena’ feels so dynamic and impactful. Craig Finn knows just when to pull out the stops, and those moments make it worth the vaster melodic dullness, even though it helps center the album around words instead of hooks.
I’d like to recount the above passage one last time – the album’s namesake, “I need a new war.” The line is centered around Finn’s move to the big city following rural life, metaphorically encapsulating his desire to face new people and challenges. The lyrics’ meaning feels like it could – should
– be extrapolated and applied to each of the characters that he depicts along the way. Everyone on this album is stuck in some kind of a rut, and just as Finn did for himself, his advice seems to be to pack up and move on. Sometimes you reach a point where you realize a war simply can’t be won – whether it’s a deadbeat boyfriend, a selfish ex-friend, or being trapped in a town with nothing to offer – and it’s best to, in a sense, pull the troops out. That’s I Need A New War
: the plodding, disheartening tales of the average person, and the small windows that represent a way out.