The writing remains the main attraction in Finn’s work, and both as a storyteller and a rock songwriter, he has never sounded more in control. From the beginning, he had a gift for meticulous, vivid world-building, and his wordplay has gotten tighter as his subjects have come down to earth: “He dreams of sweeping vistas/And machines that sweep the streets,” goes a line in “Curtis & Shepard,” which tells us everything we need to know about the central character’s suffocating lifestyle. Riding a groovy bassline and drum loop that finds the middle ground between “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Streets of Philadelphia,” the density of his rhymes builds with the music, bringing us into the character’s mind as opposed to merely narrating the view .
In a 2021 interview, about a year after lockdown first started, Finn discussed the way it had impacted his songwriting, which for so long was based on traveling and meeting people—hearing their stories, leaving his comfort zone, following conversations to surprising ends. In a press release for the album, he notes that his partner is a hospital nurse, and in the early stages of the pandemic, he was advised to live separately from her to avoid contamination. Coupled with the deaths of several close friends during this time, the circumstances led to an uncommonly dark collection in his body of work, which often strives for hope, celebration, and community. These days, he’s more likely just to shut the blinds and go back to bed: “When the devil starts to show up in your dreams/Then it’s hard to get your dreams back,” he observes sadly in “The Amarillo Kid.”
And yet, “The Amarillo Kid” is one of the most upbeat songs here, with the kind of hummable, singalong chorus that Finn usually reserves for the Hold Steady. The same way his writing is dense with layers and allusions—note each use of the term “fish tank,” and the perspective from which each character observes it—the music often complicates his message, creating a new source of tension. I keep returning to those closing moments of “The Year We Feel Behind,” where Finn and Jenkins’ voices build to a haunted call-and-response. “The devil makes his money on the small moves,” she sings. “All at once has never been his style.” In the background, the strings crescendo toward a happy ending but the chords never resolve for too long, creating the effect of a never-ending stairwell. On any given listen, you might imagine their voices climbing upward or tumbling down, growing increasingly in sync or drifting apart. Finn knows the truth is always somewhere in between.
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