On the face of it, the title of Craig Finn’s new solo album looks ironic. The Hold Steady singer specializes in characters that rarely see past right now, often while they’re busy recapping what sounds like a particularly vivid past. These 10 new songs are no exception, as Finn sings about people mired in circumstances grim enough that their faith would be seem to be misplaced in any vision of the future that isn’t bleak.
Yet for all their present-tense complexities, Finn’s characters rarely give up on the idea that something better may lie ahead, which lends his songs a quiet positivity that’s very much intentional on Faith in the Future. “I wanted to create something elegant and age-appropriate for 43, but also optimistic,” says Finn, who has since turned 44.
The trick was creating it without the massive riffs from Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler. Without Kubler’s six-string muscle—which serves as a sort of positivity enhancer for Finn’s lyrics, offering an antidote to hopelessness with a sonic shot of adrenaline strong enough to result in automatic fist-pumping—Finn and producer Josh Kaufman opted for a more textural approach. Finn’s voice is surrounded by eddies of guitar and somber piano, punctuated here and there with horns and anchored by drummer Joe Russo’s solid, unfussy beats.
Like Finn’s first solo effort, 2012’s Clear Heart Full Eyes, the result is an album that’s more subdued, and moodier, than any of his work with the Hold Steady. It’s also some of his most mature work. Faith in the Future comprises songs Finn started writing after his mother died in 2013, and while none of them are specifically about that, he sings here about people persevering in the face of tragedy and loss. His narrator on “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son” hopes to make amends while he’s still able, and a careful listen to the lyrics offers startling hints about where things went wrong. A few songs later, on “Sarah, Calling From a Hotel,” Finn provides just enough detail to evoke a vivid picture, without filling in the background: “The last thing she said to me / before she hung up the phone was, / ‘here he comes.’ / Oh God. I gotta go,” he sings over fingerpicked acoustic guitar.
While the songs here aren’t as instantly stick-in-your-head catchy as much of The Hold Steady’s catalog, they have a subtler staying power of their own. “Trapper Avenue” builds into something akin to a mantra by the end, thanks to Finn’s simple vocal melody and a repeating three-note keyboard vamp, while “Roman Guitars” feels increasingly essential each time through as horns provide a counterpoint to Finn’s vocals.
As usual, Finn sings mostly in the first-person, and though he tends not to dabble much in autobiography, there’s at least one exception here: “All these tall tales and one tiny truth. / I saw the towers go down / from up on Newmyer’s roof,” he sings on “Newmyer’s Roof,” referring to where he was on Sept. 11, 2001. Finn’s songs are full of nuggets about Minneapolis, where he grew up, or more recently New York, where he’s lived since 2000. But the personal revelation on “Newmyer’s Roof” is a rare glimpse behind the world he’s created in his music, and it acts as a sort of confidence that draws you deeper in to hear what else he has to say. It’s worth paying attention.