Craig Finn's solo output has been reassuringly impressive, building on his work with The Hold Steady, he gives himself the freedom here to explore more intricate and intimate material without the band dynamic guiding the development of his lyrics. Album number three picks up exactly where 2015's Faith In The Future ended, these are lyrically dense songs that don't rely on hooks and choruses to make their point. Instead they're like snippets from an unwritten novel detailing the struggles of middle age in middle America. It's Finn's strength as a wordsmith that makes We All Want The Same Things such a joy to listen to. While the record takes a little longer to percolate through your brain than its predecessor, it's equally as compelling.
Finn mainly writes in the first person, enabling these songs to have an intimacy, no matter how dark the tales of drug deals and broken lives become. That's perhaps always been the key to his success, each protagonist feels as if they're speaking directly to you, detailing their lives in minute detail. It also allows Finn to play with time, as these aren't linear narratives. Opening track 'Jester & June' opens right in the middle of a stream of consciousness anecdote about a bathroom drug deal. As the story unfolds though, it's clear that the narrative is all in the past tense and that life has moved on quite dramatically from the glory days. It's a technique used many times in these ten songs, but by removing a reliance on a traditional story structure these vignettes always take interesting and unexpected turns.
Musically these compositions take their lead from Finns lyrics, for example 'Jester & June' echoes the structure entering the narrative midway through, a wailing saxophone suggests we're dropping in mid-flow. Pianos, brass, and assorted percussion, all propel these songs forward, but it's the guitar solos that do most of the heavy lifting preventing the lack of traditional structure from becoming overwhelming. 'Birds Trapped In The Airport' deploys a dreamy organ and Caithlin De Marrais' harmonies to take Finn as close to traditional pop as he's likely to get. It's the moment where you realise how different these songs may have sounded if they'd been put through the prism of The Hold Steady, personally I like what Finn's achieved here by handpicking contributions from fellow band-mate and guitarist Tad Kubler along with Stuart Bogie on horns, among others.
The central song that also donates the album its title is 'God In Chicago'. It's a narrative that weaves all the record's themes into one concise vignette dealing with grief, addiction, religion, middle age, and regret. Centred around a funereal piano line Finn essentially provides a more detailed and updated version of Springsteen's 'Meeting Across The River' - a drug deal with hope on the other side. Once the protagonist gets to Chicago the piano changes key and for a brief moment the mood seems to shift as if to underline that "we all want the same things". It's perhaps the quietest moment on the album, but it's the central point around which the other songs seem to revolve.
Finn seems to reach a logical conclusion for all of his characters on the final track 'Be Honest' - "If revolution's really coming, then we all need to be well. So maybe it's just best, if we both take care of ourselves". It's an admission that you need to make peace with the past, and while it may not be as glowingly optimistic as some of the themes found on Faith In The Future, We All Want The Same Thing certainly achieves a similar goal. It's a fascinating and emotional dissection of middle America and the people who inhabit it. If there's a lingering frustration, it's that you don't get to spend more time with each narrator, perhaps it's time that Finn puts pen to paper and develops his ideas into a longer form of narrative. This record certainly underlines that he's a storyteller who's unmatched by many of his contemporaries.
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