The chorus of The Hold Steady’s song “Killer Parties” goes, “If she says we partied, then I’m pretty sure we partied.”
This could serve as something of a thesis statement for Craig Finn’s career. Once more, the Twin Cities native dives, on his new solo album, We All Want the Same Things, into the underbelly of the party.
The characters in Finn’s universe have storied histories of partying, losing control, waking up somewhere unfamiliar, and ruefully reflecting on the messes they’ve made, with the slightest glint of nostalgia in their eyes. From Almost Killed Me through 2014’s Teeth Dreams, Finn has used The Hold Steady as his platform to introduce listeners to a world replete with obtusely nicknamed partygoers, con artists, reckless drivers, drunk co-eds, and myriad other creatures of the night.
Throughout the new solo album, his third, we meet characters who are at once familiar to anyone versed in Hold Steady/Craig Finn lore, but they are simultaneously of a different flavor. The nostalgia—looking back on the mistakes and think “but, man, we had a great time”—is all but gone. Instead, there is a palpable feeling of loss. At times, We All Want the Same Things feels like a labored study in suppressing the lump in one’s throat.
“God in Chicago” is the finest of the lot, describing the aftermath of an overdose. The narrator and the deceased’s sister journey to a suburb of Chicago to sell her brother’s leftover drugs to a guy the narrator knew in his college days. A decade ago, Finn might’ve used this as a jumping off point for a raucous, tongue-in-cheek survey of the drug-fueled weekend that could have followed, but here the story takes a more somber tone. In simple spoken word over understated piano chords, like a confessional or a eulogy, the narrator and the sister stay overnight in the city, drinking, asking strangers for cigarettes, and distracting themselves from the sorrow hiding behind the city lights. Finn says, “I felt God in the buildings,” but as the couple returns home, away from Chicago and its hypnotizing skyline, the loss springs anew.
Similarly, we find “Preludes,” another tale concerned with finding God, in a more traditional sense. On the trail of lively woodwinds and drums, a drunken car crash into a snowbank reaffirms the singer’s faith that God watches over the proceedings on this chaotic planet; this is his “a-ha” moment, the event which compels him to change his self-destructive habits. With a vocal cadence eerily reminiscent of Elvis Costello, Finn enters poppy, dream-like territory—almost as if this faith in something bigger than one’s self has given the song wings.
Though these are among Finn’s best, and certainly the strongest of his three solo outings, they stand so head-and-shoulders above the other songs on We All Want the Same Things that it becomes difficult to invest in the album as a whole. Unsurprisingly, the songwriter’s knack for small, idiosyncratic details remains as strong as ever: trying to buy drugs and getting duped with coriander; the horrendous flavor of a Bud-Clamato (“It’s kind of spicy”); and the evocative opening lines of the final track, “Her body was an outpost for ideas that didn’t work.” But the context for these lines, the actual music beneath them, becomes blurry.
Nothing is necessarily bad instrumentally, but very little leaves a grand impression. The mood is decidedly less poppy, less raucous, less celebratory than Finn’s previous solo albums and the entire Hold Steady oeuvre. As a result, we get a few moments of clairvoyance, phrases and ideas that show Finn really has a finger on the pulse of sadness, loss, and redemption. But more often, his unique storytelling gets lost in the wash of concurrent tracks that are aurally too similar to stand apart from each other, particularly in the album’s latter half.
Still, the moments that work do so exceptionally. “God in Chicago” is among the most affecting and poignant pieces of music that has come out in the last year. It is no coincidence, however, that it sounds much different than anything else on the album.
Every song has at least one good moment—most of them are hidden in the lyrics—and Finn should certainly be celebrated for the great literary lyricist that he is. As a venture into new moods, We All Want the Same Things is a worthy journey, albeit it one with mixed results.