Craig Finn: All Those Perfect Crosses

As lyricist and frontman for The Hold Steady, Craig Finn is celebrated as being “pretty good with words” (to quote one of his own characters in “Stuck Between Stations”); an associated Facebook group “Sounds like a Hold Steady lyric but okay” suggest his lyrics are characterised by “Catholicism, drugs, Minneapolis, literary references, that specific Craig Finn cadence”. Finn’s solo work is less well known, but the quality of the song-writing is still consistently high.

As a Record Store Day 2020 release, All These Perfect Crosses compiles B-sides, alternative versions and demos of tracks from Finn’s solo “trilogy” of albums for Partisan Records, Faith In The Future (2015), We All Want The Same Things (2017) and I Need A New War (2019). Finn’s first solo album Clear Heart Full Eyes (2012) is not represented, but All These Perfect Crosses still comes in at 20 tracks on double vinyl; as the saying goes there is a lot of bang for your bucks.

Finn’s solo work may generally seem more subdued than the exuberant riffs of The Hold Steady, and this is the case for All These Perfect Crosses; this is perhaps down to the grainy focus, of studies of characters struggling through life. The hook for the listener is likely to be the quietly insistent melodies and intriguing lyrics. As if to warn that these are melancholic songs, Finn looks appropriately glum, or at least deadly serious, on the cover.

Faith In The Future was described as “some of his most mature work” by Paste Magazine, “about people persevering in the face of tragedy and loss”. The associated tracks here are from the Newmyer’s Roof EP which came as a download for pre-orders of the album and as a cassette EP (Finn, or his record company, adopted this type of approach for all pre-releases of the albums). Generally these cuts have the same muted, late night tone of the album – the atmospheric anxiety of “They Know Where I Live” and the evocative saxophone of minimalist “Screenwriter’s School”. The gentle groove of “Three Drinks” and the poppy “Extras” are more energetic, but there is still a sense of characters being in recovery. Somewhat obscurely, the title of the album Faith In The Future is from a line in one of these extra tracks, the nocturnal “Sometimes She Doesn’t Call Back” (as well, a reference to “Tangletown” makes an appearance, re-appearing as the title of a song on We All Want The Same Things).

Third album We All Want The Same Things ironically seemed more hopeful than the positively titled Faith In The Future, and according to Pitchfork it was still steeped in a “mournful haze”, but “on par with his [Finn’s] finest work”. There are eight associated tracks on All These Perfect Crosses, four from the Calvary Court EP (which again came as a digital EP with pre-orders for the album), two demos, an alternate version and a B-side.

The tracks on the Calvary Court EP are particularly good. “Wild Animals” swings with some quirky instrumentation. “Calvary Court” is included twice with markedly different interpretations; a gritty take with the full band, and a slower tempo “piano” version with clarinet – both provide ominous warning. Due to its’ breezy carefree attitude and saxophone part, “Eventually I Made It To Sioux City” sounds like an early ‘70s E Street outtake, and is a standout.

Demos can sometimes be a difficult listening experience, and often are best reserved for super-fans. Here however the demos of “Rescue Blues” and “Tangletown” sound in an advanced and sophisticated state, to the extent that they could pass for fully realised versions.  In respect of the further tracks, the horn version of “God In Chicago” has more of an immediate-mix, with a brighter vocal; the added instrumentation gives the song more depth, and with its’ spoken vocal this is another highlight of the collection. B-side “Ram In The Thicket”, which Finn says was not intended to be a political song, deals with “sacrifice, criminals, huge mistakes, and end times”; dense and complex, it’s on the more difficult end of Finn’s work.

Comic by Andrew Greenstone

Reviews of the fourth solo album, I Need A New War, focused on it being a particularly empathic, humane record and this is reflected in the related tracks here. “It’s Never Been A Fair Fight” is featured with both the up-tempo, full band version released as a 2019 standalone single (originally recorded during the sessions for the album), as well as an acoustic version released as part of The Plattsburgh digital EP (with pre-orders of the album). The full band version is peppy with a happy-go-lucky humour. The acoustic version further emphasises the story of the song; the difficulty of a life in sub-culture, with a scene which is going to fall apart “pretty soon”, and hardcore being in “the eye of the beholder”, becoming “mostly about what you wear to the shows”.

The remaining tracks from the Plattsburgh EP are also included: acoustic versions of “Magic Marker” “Blankets”, and “Grant At Galena”. Finn is a strong story teller, and the paired-down versions suit the weary nature of the plain-speaking characters in difficult times. In “Magic Marker” “everyone’s talking about the President”, but the narrator is never sure what to say; “Blankets” revisits one of Finn’s favourite social places for songs, the racetrack, but the tone is one of withdrawal, with parties seeming like a “waste”. “Grant At Galena” is notable for its’ piano accompaniment which adds to the mood of troubled drama – as the sun is coming up, our hero is high in the bath.

This tone is shared by the new song and mournful title track, “All These Perfect Crosses”. With its’ sombre piano, “there seems to be a storm coming in”, and the narrator admits it’s hard to “force yourself” to fall in love with friends. Finn’s sharp lyrics are typically memorable (“You had your hair pulled back in tiny black barrettes/Dressed up like some twitchy little kid”); the song is a great addition to his catalogue.

To seal the deal, the record Store Day vinyl release comes with an impressive comic by Andrew Greenstone. Find this record in the racks at your local record store, or download.

BUY

Label: Partisan Records
Release Date: 29 AUG 2020