Big Hassle

When Craig Finn returned from college in Boston to Minneapolis in 1994, he developed a very particular preoccupation. “I just remember thinking the whole trick of this is going to be, ‘I can’t get a DUI,’” the Hold Steady singer recently told Steven Hyden for Uproxx, adding that he realized that the guys he saw riding bikes around town weren’t necessarily doing so “for exercise.” He sings about this period in his new song “Preludes,” in which he recalls, “I got stuck in a snowbank / I was too drunk to drive to Edina.”

As a cheerful rock arrangement laden with flutes swirls around him, he adds, “Right there is proof of my faith that God watches us.”

The miracle of crashing into a snowbank is exactly the kind of miracle Finn talks about throughout We All Want the Same Things, his third solo album since his rambunctious lit-rock band made him an indie star in the mid-2000s. We All Want the Same Things is an album about comfort—the comfort of grace in tough times, and the comfort that broken people can provide to each other. As always, Finn blurts out proper names, drug references, and working-class signifiers, but the raise-your-beer choruses that made him famous are nowhere to be found, replaced by stories that are unusually compact, gentle, and fable-like. Bolstered by the producer Josh Kaufman’s shimmering arrangements that blend chamber pop and Joshua Tree-era U2, the short, elegant album contains some of Finn’s best work since 2008’s Stay Positive.

The autobiographical “Preludes” is an anomaly on the album and in Finn’s catalogue; mostly, he sticks to invented characters. Usually it’s a boy and girl—or rather, now, a man and a woman, years older than the “hoodrats” who populated the Hold Steady’s early albums. The opener “Jester & June” arrives with a galloping-and-shaking beat and seems to tell one of Finn’s typical tales of scoring sketchy substances from sketchy characters (“the creepy kid at the car wash,” “the guy with the Dracula cape”)—but then it’s revealed that what we’re hearing is decidedly in the past tense. Jester and June are just called Justin and Jane now. As Finn’s narrators reminisce about their rowdy youths, the drums drop out and a guitar figure twinkles: a classic pop-punk pre-chorus stretched to something longer and dreamier. The old days may have been dangerous, but the memory of them clearly provides warmth in the now.

Seeking warmth in a wintery now is the mission throughout We Want the Same Things. For the midtempo piano rocker “Ninety Bucks,” he sings from the perspective of a woman planning to go back to school to finally complete her medical-assistant training. But since the semester doesn’t start till the fall, she’ll keep getting high a little longer with someone named Nathan, who she repeatedly calls her “only friend.” The Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler adds in a dissonant guitar solo late in the song, but otherwise the vibe is upbeat and playful. “The question is whether Nathan really is her only friend,” Finn writes in the press notes, but really all that matters is what she feels is true.

A similar story—“a relationship based on convenience,” per Finn—keeps getting told throughout We All Want the Same Thing, with varying degrees of ache, comedy, and uplift. There’s a beautifully cresting wave of krautrock and woodwinds for “Birds Trapped in the Airport,” where one likely junkie thanks another for companionship even if both may not be long for this earth. The very good bar-room shuffler “Rescue Blues” describes a guy in debt striking up a secret codependency with a woman enjoying her dead husband’s accident insurance payout; though he knows his “stupid tavern friends” would laugh at him taking advantage of her widescreen TV, Finn’s narrator insists that there’s something “pure” to the situation. The materialist gender dynamic of that song is flipped on the even-prettier, Cranberries-esque “Tangletown,” where a waitress and a rich divorcee both seem to be getting something useful from hook-ups that other people might call transactional.

The starkest and most stunning version of this sort of narrative comes on “God in Chicago,” where Finn’s risky decision to use spoken-word succeeds thanks to his poetic concision and a note of exhaustion in his voice. The characters are a dead guy’s sister and his college-dropout friend; they take a trip to sell off the deceased’s stash of drugs and end up sparking a connection. The escape into bliss with another person amid grief is like the aforementioned drunken crash into a snowbank—it evokes the divine. “I felt God in the buildings,” Finn says. “The light from the skyscrapers showing up in the river.” Happily-ever-after doesn’t come, but happy in the moment is no small thing.

The album’s unifying title and the fact that Finn has long been a chronicler of the Midwestern white working class might lead to some expectations that this effort would have political dimensions under Donald Trump—and it does, sort of. He’s said that the people in his songs probably vote differently than he does but that he wants to show the inherent human experience both sides have in common. And throughout these tales, personal struggles occasionally suggest a broader kind of struggle. During one musical outpouring of exuberance, Finn sings of “birds trapped in the airport / And the boats in the bath / All the guns in the movies / The premonitions of crashes.” It’s one person’s post-traumatic stress, but it could be a whole society’s.

A similar metaphor is at work on the closing track “Be Honest,” in which the main character’s body is described over warm piano keys and a slow beat as “an outpost for ideas that didn’t work / A nation failed and broken.” In the album’s final moments, Finn completes the work of stitching together a large narrative and a much smaller one: “If revolution is really coming then we all need to be well / So maybe it’s just best if we both take care of ourselves.” He’s naming one of the things the “we” of the album title all want: peace even amid turmoil.

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