Monday, April 3, 2017

No Faith in the Future: We All Want the Same Things by Craig Finn

The artwork for Craig Finn's new album We All Want the Same Things depicts a sodden motorway beneath a dismal grey sky. Red brake lights glow weakly in the rain, and the cars ahead slow to a crawl as they approach some unseen obstruction. Has there been an accident? A collision, a collapsed bridge? Or is it just ordinary congestion...?

Uncertainty about the future is kind of a central theme for this LP. Finn reminds us that nobody can really know what lies ahead; all we can do is try our best to be ready for it. The penultimate line of the album's final track, Be Honest, is as follows:

"If revolution's really coming then we all need to be well"

We All Want the Same Things is an album for interesting times, and its release was very well timed indeed because there are a lot of interesting things happening on both sides of the Atlantic right now. Theresa May triggered Article 50 last week, which means that the Brexit process is now officially underway, while over in America Donald Trump and his team are still battling allegations of Russian involvement in last year's presidential election. Right now it feels nearly impossible to predict where we'll all stand next week - let alone in a couple of years' time - and for that reason, We All Want the Same Things feels like the perfect set of songs for this moment in history. Unimaginably huge changes could be just around the corner for all of us, and so the important thing to do right now is to look after yourself and embrace the here and now.

As any fan of Craig Finn or his band The Hold Steady would expect, these new songs are filled with colourful and troubled characters, all of whom are forced to live in the present because they can't rely on the future. Tangletown, a dreamy pop song that's punctuated with immensely satisfying horn stabs, focuses on a middle-aged divorcee and his younger lover, both of whom seem kind of lost and appear to have no goals except to surround themselves with "finer things". Then there's God in Chicago, the centrepiece of We All Want the Same Things and the song from which the album's title is drawn: sounding like something from Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat's Everything's Getting Older, this piano-led spoken word track tells the story of a man and a woman who travel to Chicago to handle some "unfinished business" and realise, once the deal has been closed, that they've nothing else on their to-do list. They've taken care of the one thing that needed taking care what now?

They decide to take a look around the city, and we follow them as they eat, drink, and lose themselves in the "glass and light". Perhaps inevitably, they end up falling into each other's arms and spending the night together in a hotel room. Finn's narration ends with the woman bursting into tears on the drive back to Saint Paul.

While it does have its share of rootin' tootin' rock numbers (Tracking Shots springs to mind), as a whole We All Want the Same Things has a far more muted, melancholy feel than any prior Craig Finn or Hold Steady album. There's loads of piano on this LP, and a generous helping of woodwind too - the clarinets on Be Honest and It Hits When It Hits in particular give the album's second half a heavy, overcast mood that's neatly reflected in the gloomy cover art. But this isn't supposed to be a depressing, downbeat listen - quite the contrary, in fact. The real message here isn't just 'the future is uncertain'; it's 'the future is uncertain, so enjoy yourself in the present!'

Friendship is another hugely important theme on this record, with several tracks joyously celebrating the bonds that people share. Opening track Jester & June reminisces with a smile about a tight friendship between two partners in crime; the stompy-booted Ninety Bucks rotates around a cry of "Nathan, you're my only friend!" But my favourite song on We All Want the Same Things, and in my opinion the purest crystallisation of everything this album is about, is the stunning Birds Trapped in the Airport.

Characterised by its driving, almost motorik beat and the crazy accordion notes that flitter around it, Birds Trapped in the Airport is a thrilling and powerfully uplifting track about making the most of the time you have left and the wonderful people who are still with you. "James, I'd like you to dance with me - we'll be skeletons and ghosts next year." A bit like P.S. You Rock My World by the Eels, this is a song that acknowledges the inevitability of death but understands that we should celebrate life all the more jubilantly for the fact that it eventually ends. Sure, we're stuck in traffic; sure, it's raining; sure, we might encounter any number of horrors on the road ahead. But none of that means we can't enjoy the journey.

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