Craig Finn and The Spoken Story

Craig Finn’s new solo album, A Legacy of Rentals, opens with some eerie electronica followed by an equally disorienting line sung by Finn: “At sundown it feels like I’m riding a train I’m not on.” What’s going on? Finn explains by using his speaking voice to tell a story about a woman named Rachel and how “she’d stare off into space and draw smokestacks on her placemat. She had a dwindling grace and a faith in the industry that never really made sense to me.” It’s the kind of relationship that feels like a railroad trip you never bought a ticket for.

The song is called “Messing with the Settings,” and Finn, the lead singer and chief songwriter for The Hold Steady, is able to create a lot of drama by switching from his singing voice to his talking voice and back again. It’s as if the talking is giving us the observable facts of the story—what was done and what was said—while the singing is giving us what it feels like, what it means to the narrator. And the switching back and forth reveals something important about the relationship between our external and internal lives.

This is a strategy that Finn has used a few times in the past, but he uses it more often and more effectively than ever on this new album. We are living in a time when—thanks to hip-hop—the spoken word has a greater prominence in popular music than ever before. But if rapping turns talking into a kind of street poetry, a kind of oratorical preaching, Finn is using it more like prose, more like the conversational flow that contemporary fiction writers try to emulate. But just as MCs use a melodic chorus to provide a dramatic release, so does Finn.

“That kind of storytelling has always been attractive to me,” he says over the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. “Lou Reed did that really well on songs like ‘The Gift’ and ‘Street Hassle,’ and that Scottish band Arab Strap did too. When I did ‘God Is in Chicago,’ I used some of that spoken-word stuff with some singing, and I found that something happens, a bit of magic, when you move from the everyday, mundane world of talking to singing, which seems to come from a more mystical, more enhanced world. It’s a way of connecting those two worlds.”

“God in Chicago” was the centerpiece of Finn’s 2017 album, We All Want the Same Things. It’s the tale of a man and a woman who drive from St. Paul to Chicago to sell off the last of her dead brother’s drug stash. This is all delivered in a weary speaking voice, but when the couple try to turn it into a romantic affair, Finn breaks into melody as if giving their desires more grandeur than reality can sustain.

“There’s a lot going on a song like ‘God in Chicago,’” says Josh Kaufman, who has produced all of Finn’s solo albums but the first. “You get the narrative of what’s actually going on with this person who just lost her brother, and that leads to this romance and adventure in the Midwest. It’s the marriage of both those things. Sometimes when you’re telling that kind of story[…] you lose the emotional aspect and it becomes detached, or you lose the realism and it becomes detached in a different way. But Craig has a way of making a story have both.”

The use of spoken word in pop songs has a long history, from The Kinks’ “Come Dancing” and George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to Weezer’s “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” and Beyonce’s “Why Don’t You Love Me.” Hank Williams recorded a series of gospel records under the name Luke the Drifter, where he would sing the story and then drive home the message in a spoken monologue. In those songs, however, the talking part is a brief interlude in a sung performance. Several of Finn’s new songs are more like Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” or The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare,” where the sung part is the brief interlude.

On “A Break from the Barrage,” for example, Finn talks his way through the story of a woman at the end of her rope. She needs a respite from the barrage of demands made on her every day, so she “calls in sick to work again; she leaves a message when she knows they won’t be in yet.” She just drives around for a while and eventually sneaks a bottle of vodka into a suburban mall cinema. “The edges all get blurry, and she tries to pay attention to the story of a superhero she’s not really sure she’s ever even heard of.”

Nothing much happens in the song, but the accumulation of details in Finn’s deadpan narration gets us inside this woman’s desperation. And just when we’re feeling trapped there, two female singers appear to give us some perspective, chirping, “Taverns are a decent way to seal off all the stimulus.”

“‘Break from the Barrage’ takes place over the course of a couple of hours,” Kaufman points out. “You’re getting all these details about this woman’s life, even though all that happens is she goes to a bar, a gas station and the movies. But this is not a type of woman; it’s a particular woman. You’re not exploring a stereotype; it’s a full developed human you’re learning about. The arrangement furthers the narrative by using small musical motifs, by finding those combinations of chords that don’t hold the words down but give them a stage to stand on.”

“When I really know the story,” Finn adds, “I can get to a place where I can be as expressive and emotional with speaking as I could with traditional singing. That’s really interesting to me. The rhythm is laid-back; you’re not getting ahead of the beat. It’s not as percussive as hip-hop, but you’re still paying attention to the meter and the rhythm. We change the phrasing in the studio, because the talking still has to go with the music. There’s still a musical aspect to it.”

Not all the songs on A Legacy of Rentals use this talking/singing approach. Some try to split the difference—a minimalist melody may allow Finn to half-talk, half-sing in a short-story prose kind of way, decreasing the tunefulness for the narrative verses and increasing it for the more reflective bridge. On “The Amarillo Kid,” for example, the narrator uses a deadpan singing/talking voice to tell his story of growing up in the Texas Panhandle, brought up by the strap and the Bible, moving from “first-person shooter” videogames to low-level drug dealing. Only when he steps back from the facts does the new-wave dance groove open up into more melody.

“A lot of these songs would start as prose,” Finn says, “but as the editing progressed, I would take more care of how the words would sound. But these new songs are definitely more prosey, so you can talk more straightforwardly. There’s a freedom to getting away from rhyme, but you might lose some of the hookiness, of being memorable. For me it felt like a good trade-off. But even in Hold Steady, I tend to write the way I talk.”

Often it was Kaufman who would suggest which section of the lyrics should be highlighted with more melody, more repetition, maybe some female harmonies, maybe more keyboards, maybe even some strings. Finn and his producer had used horns on the last few solo albums to punch up the songs, but this time they wanted to do something different. And because these new songs were so narrative based, maybe the backing music should resemble a film score. And that meant strings.

“It makes it more of a cinematic thing,” Finn says. “It makes me think of Gone with the Wind. It infuses these stories about small-time players with bigger stakes. There were times in the studio we kept it a bit sparse to leave room for the strings. I could feel confident telling a story that’s smaller because I knew the strings would help it seem bigger. These are people engaged in mundane struggles, people we might consider unremarkable. It was like a small-budget movie, compared to the broader strokes of The Hold Steady songs.”

“I talked to our string arranger Trey Pollard about what we were looking for,” adds Kaufman, a member of Bonny Light Horseman, who has also produced Hold Steady, Bob Weir and Amy Helm. “We wanted more texture as opposed to a ton of melody, more to add lighting to the whole thing, like someone might use a Hammond organ with a slow rotary speed, a fuzzier, warmer feeling. It felt like a time we wanted to bring humans back together to work on things. I love all the records we’ve done together, but this one seems special to me—it’s funnier and sadder somehow.”

That mix of comedy and tragedy is appropriate for Finn’s stories about these characters at the far end of their 30s, slowly realizing that their youthful dreams have crashed and burned, leaving them with several uncertain decades ahead of them. When they concoct unlikely schemes to recapture their old mojo, their delusions can be comic. When those delusions shatter, the effect can be sobering.

The female lead in the movie-like song “The Year We Fell Behind” tries to convince her boyfriend that “if we can hustle hard enough I think we’ll probably make it.” But the man spends his days “driving around and dropping off a certain sort of package to supplement my thin and dismal prospects.” Once he “was a seeker,” he remembers, but at some point he became “a pawn.” All the while the oozing synths and dread-filled guitar close in like a slow-moving thunderstorm. The clouds burst, and strings fill the air.

“The title was inspired by the pandemic where we all had to sit out a year,” Finn explains. “I wound up writing about a couple that was falling apart; one of them is suffering anxiety and depression, but they’re going down together. That busy drumbeat is a little ominous, like a storm rolling in so slowly they can’t get out of its way. It’s a song about washing up in your 30s and saying, ‘Whoa, this is not where I thought we were going.’”

Pop music has long turned a blind eye to the economics of real life: How does one make enough money to pay the bills? Songs are usually so obsessed with romance, heartbreak, friendship and freedom that they never acknowledge this crucial question. Finn’s songs do. Many of his characters are low-level drug dealers, motivated not by a sense of outlaw adventure, but by financial need. The work is as dreary as a retail or warehouse job—supervisors are always on your ass, and the pay is lousy. The Amarillo Kid dresses up in a suit to interview with the mob for a job delivering drugs, only to find himself commuting through snowstorms.

“A lot of these people are struggling in terms of making ends meet,” says Finn. “Most people in the drug economy are just workers. They’re not kingpins; they’re almost punching the clock like blue-collar workers. They have to show up on time and meet their quotas. A lot of these guys on this record in the drug trade wish they weren’t. It’s not about adventure; it’s about economic necessity.”

On “Never Any Horses,” the one song where Kaufman supplied pre-written music for Finn to put words to, a couple remember their shared past in very different terms. He remembers a catered party at a mansion with horses in the stables. No, she contradicts him, there were no caterers and no horses, just you taking too many pills and putting your fist through a fish tank. No one in our circle ever owned a spread like that—or even a small house with a little bit of equity. We are the product of non-ownership, a legacy of rentals.

Most of the songs describe how poverty and disillusion can warp romantic relationships, but two of the song depict similar tensions within families. “Birthdays” is a jumpy rock ‘n’ roll number with a tenor-sax solo. The narrator is talking to his cousin Anthony, whose partying is getting out of control. Yes, it’s “nice to know there’s someone in this world who’s always known me,” but it’s hard to feel responsible after “the weak attempts to stay in touch.” In “Due to Depart,” another rocker, the narrator’s hot-rodding brother has totaled his car on the interstate. Maybe this is the time for the narrator to get out of town.

“Family is part of our memories,” Finn observes, “something we’re tied to whether we like it or not. We are comforted by it, but we also want to escape it. On ‘Birthdays,’ the cousins’ parents have passed away, and they’re living in different towns. The narrator is feeling a little bit of guilt about Anthony, who’s not doing that well, but not that much.”

The Hold Steady have been a kind of family for Finn since the Brooklyn band formed in 2003 out of the ashes of the Minneapolis group Lifter Puller. By 2010, The Hold Steady had become critical darlings by releasing five impressive studio albums in seven years and touring relentlessly. After that, the band became more of a part-time gig, releasing just three more studio albums (the last two produced by Kaufman) in the past dozen years.

Finn launched a successful solo career. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay published a novel. Steve Selvidge played guitar on albums by The North Mississippi Allstars and Jimbo Mathus. Guitarist Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake have pursued various projects.

Instead of playing more than 200 dates a year, The Hold Steady now play around 25 a year, usually in residencies of three or four shows at a time, each stand in a different city. In fact, this interview with Finn took place just after he returned home from Toronto, where The Hold Steady did four nights at the Horseshoe Tavern, each night with a different setlist.

“It’s a way to go places where we know we have a good audience,” Finn explains. “By staying around at the same place, you can go for a walk, see a museum, have lunch with a friend, all the things you can’t do when you’re in the van all day. Instead of setting up and tearing down every night, we can spend more time on soundchecks and pull out songs we don’t often do. We have about 120 songs, so this gives us a chance to dig into the catalogue.”

This arrangement allows Finn to pursue twin career paths: one with the loud, rocking band that made him semi-famous and the other a more intimate, boundary-pushing solo career.

“In Hold Steady,” he says, “I’m writing to music from the guys in the band, and the music is usually big, so the stories I write are 135% of real life, people falling off roofs and whatnot. When I write for myself, I write both the music and the lyric. I start with very simple chords, a kind of musical outline. I favor the story, because I feel that’s what I do best. I bring in the songs, and Josh helps me develop them.

“Another difference is The Hold Steady songs are about people making bad decisions and suffering the consequences. My solo songs are about people trying to do the right thing, but things still aren’t working out for them.”

A Legacy of Rentals
is out this Friday, May 20, on Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers.

Revisit Finn’s 2015 Daytrotter session below.