Faith in the Future
By Maura McAndrew | 22 September 2015
Last year, Craig Finn wrote a piece for Men’s Journal (admittedly: not something I usually read) about his favorite dive bar, the Uptown in Minneapolis. As a fan of both the author and his subject, I read this story of Finn’s very early adulthood—on the cusp of twenty-one, haunting the Uptown, and taking in the scene—with awe. The article reads like a long-form version of one of his songs: Finn, ever the outsider, immerses himself in a world of music and drinking and aging “rock and roll people,” not quite in the scene but not quite separate from it. When he’s at the Uptown, he eats up every moment, but when summer is over he leaves to head back to college in Boston.
This piece hit exactly upon the reason why I’ve always enjoyed Craig Finn’s writing for the Hold Steady, which is how he’s able to so lucidly dwell in nostalgia for a post-adolescence when, pushed out of the safety of childhood, we begin to inch into worlds that start off as cool and gritty and rock ’n’ roll, but soon become desperate and depressing the longer anyone hangs on. (As Finn describes it in the Separation Sunday classic “How a Resurrection Really Feels”: “These parties they start lovely / But they get druggy and they get ugly and they get bloody.”) Finn can wield a wicked yarn, but he’s particularly apt at capturing a spirit of youthful recklessness and hedonism, and then the sadness in those who grow old trying to sustain it. The Hold Steady at their peak spoke to young and old alike: I was just twenty-four when I first saw them in 2007, and yet it was the first time I can remember feeling old at a show, surrounded as we were by overeager high school kids. We were already in graduate school, starting to look with nostalgia on the types of scenes Finn described, while for the kids around us, those scenes were aspirational.
Craig Finn’s solo work—2012’s Clear Heart Full Eyes, and now its follow-up Faith in the Future—has pretty squarely turned its gaze on the “desperate and depressing” end of the spectrum, the problems not of mixed-up kids but of lonely, lost adults. This new material, though not in any way aspirational, feels true and scary in equal measure, less about parties and more about relationships and mortality. Clear Heart Full Eyes pursued these mature themes quietly (“Terrified Eyes,” one of its best tracks, focuses on a couple dealing with health problems), with country-tinged melodies providing the record’s backbone. While Faith in the Future can easily be described as having a ‘70s rock bent (mainly in the piano and backing vocals), this is not a record for microbrew-drunk twenty-somethings to pump their fists to. It maintains its predecessor’s melancholy, clear from the record’s opening lines: “There’s a darkness in my body / And I think I might be ready.”
Faith in the Future is pretty clearly a record about getting older, feeling lonely, and ever-searching for something, but it’s also a tiny bit about the world post-9/11 (the day the record was released). Our first mention of this is in “Newmyer’s Roof,” in which Finn sings in that Springsteensian yelp he’s now permanently resigned himself to, “All these tall tales and one tiny truth / I watched the towers go down / From up on Newmyer’s roof.” The songs have their share of down-and-out Craig characters (“Christine,” “Sandra from Scranton,” “Sarah, Calling From a Hotel”), but the biggest focus here is the narrator—the “I” still feels like a bystander, but without the same amused perspective of the Hold Steady early work—or Finn’s dive bar essay, for that matter. Faith in the Future’s narrator is a bystander in his own life, watching things happen he doesn’t understand, “always alone” and “desperate to make a connection” but never acting to remedy these issues. There’s still nostalgia—“I used to cruise / I used to walk around with rubies in my shoes”—but it feels intentionally false. (“All these tall tales and one tiny truth.”)
A sense of fear and violence, as well, attaches itself to the idea of aging in Faith in the Future. In “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son,” Finn sings, “If you doubt that there’s a rapture yet to come / Hey, pick up the paper / See the stories and pictures / A kid went to the movies with a gun.” “Roman Guitars” features a homicidal plan: “Once you’re stationed in the back / Kick in the doors, surprise attack / Shut your eyes and shoot into the shack.” And the record’s most striking (yet awkwardly written) song, “Sarah, Calling from a Hotel,” the narrator speaks to an old friend on the phone, who hangs up as her boyfriend approaches with a gun.
And yet, there’s a reason I spend so much space above quoting Finn’s lyrics: Though his “voice” remains strong, forever distinctive, Faith in the Future disappoints in its lackluster melodies and overall vibe. The highlights here are the more ambitious songs: “Roman Guitars,” an organ and trumpet-laden ballad, and “Trapper Avenue,” a moody track that builds to a satisfying finish. Others don’t quite get there, like “Newmyer’s Roof,” a promising punk-influenced track that seems to build to a climax that doesn’t come. Finn has changed pretty much everything since Clear Heart Full Eyes—different producer, different band, different label—which might help to explain why Faith in the Future sounds so different from its predecessor. His first solo album was rich, bright, sharp, while Faith is raw and fuzzy, Finn’s echo-y vocals a distant spectre.
Finn’s lyrics are the main reason to seek out Faith in the Future. It’s no surprise that Boys and Girls in America, the Hold Steady’s most popular record, was also its most cheerful; when Finn goes dark, things can dip toward the songwriter’s nadir—for confirmation, see album closer “I Was Doing Fine (Then a Few People Died)”. But maybe that’s just a sign of a seriously evocative storyteller. This may not be Finn’s most listenable record, but whether he’s writing a personal essay about a bar or a song about joining a cult, his is a voice always worth hearing.