Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Craig Finn

  • Clear Heart Full Eyes [Vagrant, 2012] B+
  • Faith in the Future [Partisan, 2015] A-
  • We All Want the Same Things [Partisan, 2017] B+
  • I Need a New War [Partisan, 2019] A-
  • A Legacy of Rentals [Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers, 2022] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Clear Heart Full Eyes [Vagrant, 2012]
On a wittingly laid-back solo debut where the declamatory Hold Steady frontman knows he can't bring off the country vocals his best songs deserve, he nails three flat-out anyway: "Terrified Eyes" (couple destroyed by their hospital bills), "When No One's Watching" (snazzy scuzzball seeks needy women), and "Balcony" (she does with her new man what she did with her old man back when he was new). The rest tend more, how to say it, evocative. But at least they evoke specifics--Middle American dramatis personae as marginal as Wussy's. B+

Faith in the Future [Partisan, 2015]
The band life has long since seemed all too consuming for the Hold Steady frontman. So for me, the clearest keepers on his best bunch of songs this decade feature non-scenesters like the rootless salvation-seeker of "Maggie I've Been Searching for Our Son" and the 9/11 beer-drinkers on "Newmyers's Roof," or engage an ex-lover like "Sarah, Calling From a Hotel" or a lost one like "Christine." I mean, "Some nights it just seems like the same old thing" is all too perfect a way to begin one called "Going to the Show." And "Trapper Avenue" tells me he should probably lay off the low life too. A-

We All Want the Same Things [Partisan, 2017]
Finn's Americans are beyond politics. Barflies and hopheads, petty criminals unlikely to kill or maim, working stiffs with a hustle on the side, fuckups milking disability checks and insurance settlements, the musical lifers who bleed into all these categories--none of them are kids anymore, and of course, neither is Finn. My personal interest in this demographic has never been all that personal and continues to wane--I wish a few of his antiheroes had kids. But he sure can sing a sad story if you call that singing. And there's no denying the wah-wah hook of the opener, the musicality of the spoken-word "God in Chicago," the unrequited love at first sight of "It Hits When It Hits," or the secret love of "Rescue Blues." B+

I Need a New War [Partisan, 2019]
As Finn has aged, so have his protagonists. All 10 of these are tired, their escapes meager and their day-to-days dull and depressing; only one "had a kid and all the rest" and only one is in a relationship; most struggle or worse economically, grinding their way through shit jobs if they have jobs at all; even when they're middle class they don't enjoy it. Is it really that bad out there, statistically? Not quite. But with his singing reflective and his arrangements relaxed, Finn's compassion for these lost souls is educational and exemplary. My favorites include the hapless hopeful who wants to blow an insurance payout on a trip to the mountains that'll give Joanie "something to hope for," the pilgrim who manages to search out his ex-wife waitressing in St. Paul before the numbers the doc found in his chest finish him off, and the bank clerk who leaves a 20 on the kitchen counter for the well-meaning loser she wishes she could lift from his misery. Beneath the 20 is a message for sufferers everywhere: "Have a decent day." A-

A Legacy of Rentals [Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers, 2022]
Not everybody loses in the Hold Steady frontman's ongoing series of musical short stories, but for sure nobody wins. The slightly obscure title of his fifth such album in a decade says what you need to know: the guy who sings "The Year We Fell Behind" is the only protagonist here who owns his or in one vodka-soaked case her own domicile--not even Anthony, whose parents' house was always "neat and sweet and normal." How would you calculate the chance that any of these all-white casualties of finance capital and the fossil fuel cartel goes out and votes? I'd put it near zero myself. A-