After finishing a trilogy of solo albums full of songs about survivors, Craig Finn turns the focus of his latest album to the ones who didn’t make it. A Legacy of Rentals, Finn’s fifth LP outside The Hold Steady, is a collection of songs centered around memory as his characters recall people who are no longer there and bygone exploits. Finn’s characters in the past haven’t always been the most reliable of narrators. This time, they’re doing their best, even as time and distance distort the accuracy of what they’re able to recall.
Exploring the vagaries of what people remember, and how, is a fraught concept at a moment when the world looks vastly different than it did a few years ago. Finn wrote these songs early in the pandemic, which coincided with the unrelated death of a friend. That time period also overlapped with police officers in Minneapolis, his hometown, killing George Floyd on a street corner, surrounded by onlookers. These 10 songs contain no direct reference to any of those events, but they loom in the background, almost as if they were the catalysts for many of the themes Finn pursues on A Legacy of Rentals.
As usual, the people in Finn’s songs are vivid and compelling; few lyricists can match his talent for sketching such fully realized characters within the confines of a four- or five-minute song. He’s a master of oblique references, casual asides and offhanded observations that add up to complex people with complicated inner lives. “It never really mattered that she was 12 years older except for when we talked about the 1980s / Because I was still showing up to Modern European History while she was trying to hold on to her baby,” his narrator says on album opener “Messing with the Settings,” and there are worlds contained within those two lines.
Like any good fiction writer, Finn builds his stories so that each choice leads to the next until the choices run out, and the climax becomes inevitable. That’s the case on “The Amarillo Kid,” a taut bassline and synth and guitar accents framing the story of a small-time drug dealer who skips town with the stash. A sense of futility anchors “A Break from the Barrage,” where the protagonist ends up literally back where she started, with nothing to show for it but a wasted day and depleted sense of self. There’s not a lot about these stories, or the characters in them, that qualifies as feel-good, but all of it rings true, and sometimes that’s the weightier measure.
With a new lyrical emphasis comes an altered sonic palette. Finn teamed again with producer Josh Kaufman and many of the musicians who have played on his earlier records, but the singer wanted to try something different with A Legacy of Rentals. Apart from a solitary saxophone on the more upbeat track “Birthdays,” Finn and Kaufman moved away from the horns that colored the previous three albums in favor of a 14-piece string section, arranged and recorded by Trey Pollard at Spacebomb. The strings add atmosphere and a subtle cinematic feel on “The Year We Fell Behind,” and provide just a hint of melancholy on “Jessamine.”
Though Finn has become a more self-assured singer over the years, several of the tracks here are essentially spoken-word pieces that echo one of his most shattering songs, “God in Chicago,” from 2017’s We All Want the Same Things. He takes a similar first-person approach on “Messing with the Settings,” and describes the action as an omniscient narrator on “A Break from the Barrage,” accompanied by a minimalist arrangement of synths, guitar and percussion. Both songs, and the album in general, benefit from the tightly intertwined harmonies of Cassandra Jenkins and Annie Nero, whose contributions help temper some of the gloomier moments with a touch of empathy. They echo Finn’s melody on “The Year We Fell Behind,” and add wordless backing vocals on “Never Any Horses,” one of the songs where people’s memories of events are wildly divergent.
Divergent or not, these songs are about people reckoning with their pasts and, in their own ways, memorializing the people they have lost—even when it’s simply the person they used to be. By letting them have the space and the freedom to do it, Finn underscores the importance of finding a sense of peace, or maybe just finality, with what has come before. That’s true for the people in his songs, and also for the ones who are listening to them.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.
Revisit Craig Finn’s 2015 Daytrotter session below.