On We All Want the Same Things, the Hold Steady frontman's third solo album, we find the indie bard at his best, and he didn't even have to rock out.
______________________________ April 13, 2017 | by Matt Rice Craig Finn
We All Want the Same Things
Partisan, 2017 Grade: B+ Songwriting may never be a problem for Craig Finn. The Hold Steady frontman has such an unending fascination with the characters that inhabit his stories — fascination that, to some extent, carries even the duds (the directionless “Ascension Blues”). In his 22 years as a recording artist he’s blessed us with such gems as “’You're pretty good with words, but words won't save your life’ / And they didn't, so he died” (from his greatest song, “Stuck Between Stations”) and, more recently, “Let the city live your life for you tonight” (“Spinners”). Where he has faltered lately, without his main band especially, is in the sound. Like so many exceptional lyricists before him, Finn ran into a problem when he released his first solo record Clear Heart Full Eyes in 2012, that persisted on the 2015 follow-up Faith in the Future: Simply put, he forgot that a dive-bar rock 'n' roll poet needs his band as much as they need him.
On his third solo outing We All Want the Same Things, not much has changed, technically. Producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman returns from the previous record, as do engineer D. James Goodwin and drummer Joe Russo. The album shouldn’t be that much different from its predecessors. But by letting the music take over for the first time in his solo work, Finn finally allows his songs to resonate through arrangements as colorful as his words. A bright, groovy piano part contradicts the drugged-out gloom of “Ninety Bucks” (“The medication sometimes works / The drinking probably doesn’t help / The shepherd should still love the lambs he’s lost”), while a more somber one intensifies the spoken-word tragedy “God in Chicago” (“Her mom found her brother / Then she found the container wrapped up in a newspaper”). Moreover, the extra focus on musicality brings Finn’s melodicism front and center, a trait shared by the best Hold Steady tunes. The exceptional, horn-driven alt-country of “Tangletown” is a prime example of that, with soft backing vocals and a sonorous melody contradicting a desperate lyric about two broken souls using each other. It’s the sort of ironic beauty Finn perfected amidst his critical peak a decade ago with songs like “Chillout Tent.”
Finn only misfires when he’s too soft, as on “It Hits When It Hits,” a fine tragedy that’s too slow and dreary for its own good, only serving to highlight the limitations of his rough vocals. “Be Honest” also finishes things on a low note, too aimlessly mellow for a closer despite compelling atmosphere and a gripping narrative (“And our safe word is still ‘stop it’ / And our style is self-involved / And I can’t guarantee I’ll pick up every time that you call”). Otherwise, this is a consistent and engaging effort from an indie-rock icon who, like all rock bards worth their salt, is as wasted as his protagonists without the music itself. For the first time, he’s put out a solo album that doesn’t feel stuck between stations, but crystal clear.