Craig Finn Returns To The Scene
1:02 PM EDT on May 20, 2022
For the better part of three decades, Craig Finn has testified to the power of proximity. At concerts with his band, the Hold Steady, he shout-sings in an effortful half-octave over two-guitar riffage, telling the stories of lost-and-found souls chasing communal comfort: boozing, getting blitzed and/or baptized, running into whichever arms might hold them. His solo output is all existential hangovers, folks meeting up to shake off rough years. Fans who track back to Lifter Puller, Finn’s late-'90s origin story, find the same sentiments filed to sharper points, his lyrics tailing a horde of truants who hotwire their nervous systems and forget their nights. Finn calls himself a lapsed Catholic but still goes to mass, and his thesis inverts Sartre: heaven, or as close as we can get, is other people. “You know, all these wretches that appear in the Bible get saved, or have the potential to be saved,” Finn told me. “We’ve all sinned, and we can all come back.”
I saw the Hold Steady in December 2019, at their annual New York residency at Brooklyn Bowl. It stuck in my memory through the months that followed as shinily Before: Tad Kubler, the band’s lead guitarist, would play something overdriven and heraldic; floor toms would sound; Finn, a puffy and pushing-50 Minnesotan with a spasmodic pointer finger and insider’s grin, would spread his arms in a Christ the Redeemer pose and set off on a song about a psychic pony-player. (“Came in six lengths ahead / We spent the whole next week getting high.”) Someone in the crowd would shout his lines at him; he would shove his microphone to the side and shout them back, the roll job on his shirtsleeves hanging on for dear life. At the end of the song, a flock of flannel-draped dudes would start turning around and making beer-sloshing I-fucking-love-that-one gestures at each other, and then the whole thing would happen all over again.
“It’s a smaller scale, but it’s similar to the Grateful Dead or something,” Josh Kaufman, a singer-songwriter who has produced the last seven years of Finn and Hold Steady albums, told me. “There’s this transference—people need these concerts to happen almost like they need to go to church, or to a meeting. Congregating is crucial to the function of the band. They’re at the altar.”
When I met Finn last month at Lake Street in Greenpoint—where Bobby Drake, the Hold Steady’s drummer and the bar’s part-owner, poured drinks—he was, in keeping with his industry reputation, starkly dissimilar to his characters. He showed up on time, for one thing; for another, he was teetotaling. He’s long taken on temperance for Lent, and though Easter had come and gone a few days prior, he’d slipped up the week before in Los Angeles and was doing penance with a soda and lime. “Still counts,” he said. “Orthodox Easter is this Sunday.” Finn wore slip-on sneakers, a tan Carhartt Twins cap, and a blue button-down-and-blazer combo. You know his speaking voice if you’ve heard his singing one: drawn-out but directed, slaloming through consonants, with a sheen of long-winter phlegm.
Even absent alcohol, our table held the low current that now comes with any outing, starting up when you step into a room with strangers and the door behind you closes. “As a touring musician, the past X amount of years, I’ve spent so much time alone within crowds,” Finn said. “You’re in a strange town, you’re in a crowded restaurant, but nobody’s talking to you. It’s something I had come to crave. It’s someplace that I get ideas, and I missed that.”
At the beginning of March 2020, as the Hold Steady flew back to the States from a run of shows overseas, Finn got word that a close friend, the Philadelphia rock promoter Bryan Dilworth, had died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. The band landed a few hours later in a new New York. Finn’s partner, Angie Bentfield, is a hospital nurse; a six-week stint on the COVID-19 front lines, starting in April, required that she seal herself off. Finn moved out of their Brooklyn apartment and into Bentfield’s sister’s place nearby. Shaken and grieving but leavened by duty—Bentfield was working, so he had to, too—he shut himself in his room each day with a guitar and notepad, not emerging until he had a draft of a song.
“I’ve had people die on me before, but that one was like a, ‘whoa,’” Finn said. “No matter how much we try to put down roots, we’re all ashes to ashes.” His voice perked purposefully, as if to get past the grimness—an impulse that, having grown up outside Kansas City and spent a chunk of my life in Minneapolis, I am inclined to call Midwestern. “This is the one thing I can control, right? There needs to be three verses, two choruses, and a bridge.”
Friday morning, Finn released A Legacy of Rentals, an album made of music written in that borrowed room. In some cases, it bears an unusually clear autobiographical mark. (Though no contagion gets mentioned, “Due to Depart” opens with a bad-news text and a hurried trip; Finn woke up on New Year’s morning, 2020, to learn that a friend’s mother was killed in a car crash.) But on the whole, the changing world—and its piecemeal, possibly neverending change back—hasn’t so much reshaped Finn’s work as intensified its effect. He writes songs about shoddy, temporary salvation and last-ditch togetherness. What other kind is there?
“Minnesota is a unique place. It has a heaviness to it,” Bob Mould, the onetime Hüsker Dü frontman who also came of age in the Twin Cities, told me. “There’s isolation and darkness, which leads to what people do alone in the dark: deal with mental health issues, substances. It informs a lot of the stories and the characters that Craig writes about, but he does it in such a bright, communal, celebratory way. It’s sort of, ‘I’m writing it in the dark, but I’m sharing it in the light.’”
With the Hold Steady, Finn’s lyrics take shape around the loud sounds his cohorts make; he sees the solo stuff as a chance to fill in the spectrum. “There’s less guns, there’s less falling off the roof,” he said. “There’s more, you know, sitting in a parking lot wondering what happened.” Recording A Legacy of Rentals in the Hudson Valley last May, he and Kaufman fashioned a sound from, and for, the folder of pandemic projects he walked into the studio with. The backup singers who mostly ooh and aah on Hold Steady albums, Cassandra Jenkins and Annie Nero, were now called on to lift whole lines from Finn’s call-it-tenor to their own soprano registers; a string section softened the choruses. The effect is windswept and hard to hold onto, blissful but delicate—the last edges of last nights.
Finn calls A Legacy of Rentals a memory record, and on the cover is a bright blue photo treated to look torn and water-pocked, of a seascape and a cargo ship. The songs hold onto some trademarks: protagonists named out of phonetic convenience, swerves of fate. The first track, “Messing with the Settings,” tells the story of a bar-going pair, a student with some reckless driving charges and a mother trying to retain custody. But Finn futzes with the usual night-out timelines, leading with the comedowns. “Curtis & Shepard” opens in a hideout and ends in a killing, and its first verse brings on the omens: “Sometimes when they sail off she forgets to feed the fish / and they float up to the top to drift in the abyss.” The closer, “This Is What It Looks Like,” is a looped shuffle with an abstracted plot: a citywide bender under siege, something closing in. Finn’s voice is soft, at a kind of overtired ease; Jenkins’ and Nero’s are nervy and perfect. It ends with the three singers in a round, repeating an incantation: “This is what it looks like when we’re joyful.” Alone, they might sound like they’re trying to convince themselves. Together, they sound like it’s working.
In the mid-1980s, at that age when young people first endure real cruelty at one another’s hands, Finn held far-downstream status at a suburban junior high school. His was the classical rough go: He was smart but removed, superficially and actually bookish, tuned into the strangeness of young-teenage social dynamics but inept at converting that knowledge to currency. “I wasn’t good at hockey,” Finn said. “Which, growing up in Edina, Minnesota, puts a target on your back.”
A wormhole opened up via Replacements records—a friend’s older sister knew Tommy Stinson—and dumped him out one afternoon at an all-ages matinee at First Avenue, the blackwashed brick bunker downtown whose wall of stars now bears the names of both of Finn’s bands. The Violent Femmes were on the stage; Finn, as one of his manically religious narrators might put it, got born again. He had seen arena acts tour-bussing through the Twin Cities, but now, instead of straining for glimpses, he drowned in detail. He elbowed up to where he could memorize pedal boards. He sniffed the smoke coming off Djarum clove cigarettes. “I loved being so close,” Finn said. “I just wanted to keep coming back.”
Finn’s songs are no place for kids, but his career can nevertheless be read as a sideways ode to the adolescent moment when he found a crowd and snapped into place within it. He’s a scenemaker, in every sense. At Boston College in the early ‘90s, Finn taught his friend Steve Barone a few guitar chords and assigned a syllabus: Pavement, Archers of Loaf, the ‘Mats. “Craig was my turner-onner guy,” Barone said. “I learned a couple songs he’d played with his high school band, and I’d play them for girls and take credit for them. They were easy, but they were complete.”
After graduation, answering phones for American Express annuities back in Minneapolis, Finn called Barone and some other Boston buddies and talked them into uprooting; thus was born Lifter Puller. Art exaggerated life; they played rowdy shows about rowdier ones. (The words to “The Bears,” from 1997’s Half Dead and Dynamite, came to Finn over a weekend, after the band’s bassist, Tom Roach, told him about an adrenal night out at a gay bar in San Francisco: “The mechanical bull is rubbing right through the wool of your pant leg / The line dance starts, it pounds along with your heart, and you’re stranded.”) “We flirted with some pyrotechnics,” Finn admitted—by which he meant that they put metal trays atop their stage rigs, filled them with lighter fluid, and set it ablaze—and took a rocker’s ration of liquor and weed, and the songs turned these antics into tall tales of wild Ketamine chases, or the goings-on at a nightclub fated for arson. Finn’s bar-scarred voice, set to woozy backbeats and staticky guitar chromaticism, surveyed a trick-mirror Twin Cities.
After that band broke up, Finn and Kubler—who had replaced Roach on bass—decamped to New York to, in the now-worn telling, win Brooklyn back for rock ‘n’ roll. (The Pitchfork review of the Hold Steady’s 2004 debut calls Kubler’s shredding “gory enough to disembowel whole synth-pop bands.”) 2005’s Separation Sunday and 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, whose acclaim let Finn quit his day job, were epics of Lifter Puller-ian debauchery, spanning dark parks, druggy parties, and denouement masses. But they also carried something like statements of purpose, a surfacing of the subtext. “I believe in the bodies, and I believe in the blood,” Finn sings on “212 Margarita,” a revered B-side. “I believe in the salt on the rims of the glasses, ‘cause that makes us thirsty / and when we drink then we all fall in love.”
Among his and younger generations of songwriters, Finn has become an object of admiration but not quite of envy; there’s not enough shared terrain for things to really get competitive. Ask fellow musicians where they place Finn in the lineage, and they refuse the premise, instead comparing him to Emily Dickinson, in his taste for slant rhyme, or Raymond Carver, for the palpable, pithily rendered settings. Mould likens him to the beat icon John Giorno. “The hypnotic structure, the cadence—it’s not pop music,” he said. “It’s something between telling a story, singing a song, and active, engaged poetry.”
Working though her own album material a couple years back, Jenkins brought Finn a notebook of lyrics and asked him to have at it with red ink. She wanted to pick up some of "his ability to give everyday details incredible depth"—to figure out how he decides on a subject's hometown, or prescription. A Hold Steady fan site features a Google map of the United States with pins dropped at mentioned locations; rashes of red cluster around Minneapolis and New York, but stray tags land as far afield as the Sonoran Desert and Pensacola. (Not everything’s the result of laborious self-edit. One song, about a festival-turned-overdose-turned-missed-connection, originally had its protagonist heading out for a weekend from Colgate; then the Hold Steady played a college gig that ended with them slamming beers and crashing out at an off-campus jubilee. “I was like, ‘Fuck that, it’s drove down from Bowdoin,’” Finn said.) Finn counseled Jenkins on the connotations of Southern California canyons. Topanga, with its thick file of indie-rock nods, he deemed overdone.
Even as he’s become a kind of laureate of the scene, Finn holds onto something of the outsider’s early thrall. “I love the Replacements a lot, and I know that Craig does, too,” said Brian Fallon, the frontman for the Gaslight Anthem. “But I would listen to those records as a kid, and I would feel like, ‘Wow, the Replacements would probably beat me up.’ Whereas I feel like Craig is me. He’s such a fan; he’s shouting from the rafters. And so many other people, that may be why they got into it in the beginning, but it’s just clearly not where they are now.”
During the fall of 2018, Finn and Fallon toured their solo acts together. In the van, Finn waxed delighted about the ‘70s-on-7 fixture “Slip Slidin’ Away.” “He loved the way Paul Simon wouldn’t sing the girl’s name until the second verse, and when it came it was such a big moment.” Finn’s own subject matter, Fallon told me, is part veneer and part misdirection. “Look at all these jokes, all these tricks and parties,” he said. “But he’s such a real romantic, underneath it all. There’s a beauty and a depth and a longing.”
In “God in Chicago,” a talk-song from his 2017 solo album We All Want The Same Things, Finn tells the story of a thrown-together couple on a road trip. Her brother has just died; he knows someone who will buy up a leftover stash. Prince on a boombox, a package in a duffel bag. At a time when the prevailing pop-cultural posture is one of remove—references to and expressions of an era of digital isolation—Finn can’t resist closeness. “We kissed on the corner / We kissed in the corridors / We fumbled with clothing,” he says. “We all want the same things.”
Recording the track, Nero contributed a heartrending vocal, a wordless wash that sounds like a sweep of rain in the distance. After she laid it down, she and Kaufman listened back. They both had loved ones who struggled with addiction, and tears welled in both their eyes. The song ends with the ride home:
We drove back all hungover
And all the way to Eau Claire she played with her hair
Came up on St. Paul and she was sobbing
In his downtime, Finn devours old music biographies and new albums. (Appraising the work of Big Thief songwriter Adrianne Lenker, he offered a high compliment: “I’ve never met her, but I think she’s technically Minnesotan.”) He talks in frank and citation-rich terms about the arc of a life in his industry. He knows the difference between playing the guitar in a band in 1982, and 2002, and 2022; he understands the implications of his recent fiftieth birthday. A year into the pandemic, the Hold Steady released Open Door Policy, their eighth studio album—recorded before the onset of COVID-19—and livestreamed a concert from Brooklyn. Screens ringing the stage beamed in fans from around-the-world living rooms, with Hold Steady tattoos on their arms and toddlers in them. Finn tuned a Telecaster and vamped. “A lot of bands don’t get to their eighth record, right?” He worked down a list of some who had. “KISS, Unmasked? No, that’s terrible. Zooropa, I don’t like that one either. However, Disintegration, by the Cure? Pretty damn good. Automatic For the People. Bad Reputation, by Thin Lizzy—late-period highlight!”
A few years back, the Hold Steady restructured their touring routine, forsaking the old coast-to-coast, night-by-night model in favor of setting up camp in certain cities over long weekends—the idea being that the dad-rock set in Akron might no longer have the verve for a Tuesday night show. Now, our age’s latent threat is that the thing that makes you feel most alive might just go away, for months or forever. Sitting in Lake Street, listening to Iggy Pop on the sound system as the latest in a string of variants swept New York, Finn remembered stopping by an otherwise no-audience, internet-broadcast set in Nashville in late 2020.
“I haven’t been at a show in months—I’m still not at a real show,” Finn said. “But I’m in a club and the guy hit the kick drum, and I went, ‘Oh, my God. I love this.’” Finn mimed the effect, putting a fist to his chest. “The youth will always find their thing that makes sense for them. But I do hope, for me, I’m always able to go to a rock show.”
Still, the Finn that has emerged after the last two years of personal and social turmoil sees himself in a revised role, less marshal than memorialist. “There’s a trepidation now, there’s more fear,” Finn said of the atmosphere at concerts over the few months since the band resumed playing out. “There’s this sense that the most careful people aren’t showing up. Not everyone’s there.” He sees a world narrowing in more ways than the one: rampant injustice and cruelty, pervasive hardship, general weariness. It is easier and more understandable than ever to withdraw.
The trailer for A Legacy of Rentals is made up of cryptic highway frames, a flag whipping off the cab of an 18-wheeler and a cross rising from a field. Watching it, I felt compelled to catalog, as best I could, the circumstances under which I’ve listened to Finn’s music. Concerts and parties have accounted for a few of these, but not the most meaningful ones. Those have come driving, alone, to and from jobs I hated or between cities I loved, or during late anxious hours at various apartments. (A minor testament to the range of the appeal: My own appetite for anything more narcotic than whiskey lands on the far side of disinterest at true phobia, and still, the Hold Steady’s “Massive Nights” is a reliable balm: “We all kinda fumbled through the jitterbug / We were all powered up on some new upper drug.”) The pandemic hardened my habits—tendency became routine became ritual—and I listened to Finn’s music as I did dishes while the world stayed shuttered, when any hope of public performance had gone away with everything else.
Talking with Finn, I thought about what makes his songs suited not only to peaks of collective exultation but also to bouts of private fatigue, or anticipation, or dread. If the subject of popular music is longing—its cycles of fulfillment and stoking, its way of overriding everything else—very few practitioners have as clear a view of its myriad aspects, and how quickly one gives way to another. I remembered the last time I had seen him perform, at the first proper Brooklyn concert the Hold Steady had played since the pandemic started, at the end of 2021. The mood was that of a reunion. The band walked onstage to “Looks Like We Made It,” and a track-by-track run-through of Boys and Girls was on the set list. Late in the night, they broke into “Me & Magdalena,” a tune they’d never before played for an audience. For four or five verses, it’s a song about a woman who ships off with a sloppy rock star. At the end, it becomes a song about what you can do when bad plans go worse. Against hall-sized chords, Finn sang the last lines from the perspective of a left-behind friend: “Last night Magdalena rang me really late / said nothing ever works, only so much I can take / If I make it back to Scranton, can I clean up at your place?”
“Desperate characters are interesting to me, just from a fiction standpoint,” Finn said. “They move around quicker. They make worse decisions and bigger mistakes.” Buttoned-up and smiling, he looked the part of a creative writing professor delivering a lecture on rising action. He talked about the human tendency to personalize, to map a problem of whatever urgency or outlandishness onto your own. “My stories are about people who need help, living marginally—because emotionally, most of us are,” he said. “That struggle is just part of being on this earth.”
The night of the show, “Me & Magdalena” landed pretty flush. I was drunk; it is built on those American harmonies that, played loud, plug right into your dopamine receptors. But later listens complicated and clarified it. The song follows want—for sex, or excitement, or escape—as it warps and hardens into need. It tells a story of getting into trouble and sounds like the way out. Like everything Finn has ever written, it’s about being with other people: the unavoidability of them as a lure, the holiness of them as a refuge.
I asked Finn if the world, and his world, remain as rich in the stories he likes to tell as they used to be. He granted that they weren’t, not quite. “Specters kind of haunted this record,” he said. “And turning 50, there’s this natural turn toward mortality, thinking about legends, eulogies. I didn’t want it to be about death, but it is about the way we remember people, the way we carry things on that are gone. It’s a way to carve into the tree, ‘CF was here.’”
Then he got pedagogic again. The lesson this time was that scale didn’t matter, only proportion. A story needs someone who needs someone else. Finn tracked back along his own needs. “The pandemic was this pattern of finding out I missed things I didn’t know I’d miss,” he said. “Of course, I missed the shows. But what about the night before the show, when you fly in late and get a drink with your bandmate at the Hilton Garden Inn? There’s no part of you that’s like, ‘This is the life, this is fucking awesome,’ but it turns out it is awesome! And you really miss it when you aren’t doing it anymore.”
Finn cast a look around the room. The tables were mostly empty, but the bar was mostly full. A leopard-print jacket was slung over an unoccupied stool. “Maybe there will be less moments that make you, you know, throw a beer,” Finn said. “But hopefully I’m making music about the variety of human experiences we all have. We all have Monday mornings, and we all have Friday nights.”