There has been very little recorded output from The Hold Steady in the past eight years even though they are still regularly playing shows. To fill the void, frontman Craig Finn is on his fourth solo album in the same period of time. I Need A New War is said to be the final chapter in a trilogy of albums, but that message somewhat dilutes its appeal as a standalone record.
Finn has always been a master at spinning a narrative, and throughout I Need A New War he is as unkind to his characters as a Charles Bukowski novel is, with the earthy and world weary taking centre stage. Substance abuse and a lack of money appear to haunt many of the characters throughout the record. Finn may be better known for his emphatic indie rock delivery with The Hold Steady, but he takes a more restrained approach here, with many of the tunes on I Need A New War being closer to spoken than sung.
The mood of the album is set with a jazzy ambiance, some well-placed female backing vocals, and brass. A Bathtub In The Kitchen finds the protagonist sleeping on a friend’s couch and being given a bucket load of advice, all the time pondering the limit to this gratitude. Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today paints a bleak picture of a woman who dreams of taking off down the highway instead of returning home to her anchor of a boyfriend. She continues to turn up to her hopeless dead-end job instead. The soulful brass on Something To Hope For hints at a more upbeat approach, before Finn chimes in with “the only kind of dreams you ever seem to have are bad dreams” as he details a story of someone who comes into some money after an accident and hopes for a fresh start.
Finn delivers 10 tales of downtrodden characters with a sense of realism that doesn’t pose them as either heroes or villains. It is the journey as much as the characters that make I Need A New War such a compelling listen. Finn uses his eye for detail and a healthy sense of dark humour to highlight that the American Dream may still be there, it is just becoming more difficult to grab in both hands with each passing year.