Every great songwriter’s solo debut is a little like Clear Heart Full Eyes.
That solid 2012 album, the first attributed solely to “Craig Finn,” followed a predictable pattern: a writer wriggles loose from his band’s defining sound without finding a fully-shaped substitute, which forces his well-honed lyrics to shoulder too much of the burden. The music on solo shot #2, Faith in the Future, essentially a collaboration with Brooklyn multi-instrumental Josh Kaufman, struck a wiser balance between sound and sense. Now Kaufman’s back to produce Finn’s latest, We All Want the Same Things, which sticks the landing. The first thing we hear is a corkscrew saxophone squall dodging a filtered funk beat on “Jester and June” -- sounds that challenge the lyrics and mirror a world that baffles Finn’s protagonists.
The schemers who populate We All Want the Same Things wouldn’t be out of place on a Hold Steady album, but rather than cresting on the triumphant waves of his band’s choruses, Finn's voice emerges from within the production, where he’s free to diagnose his characters' neediness without prescribing rock anthems as treatment. The hopeful delusions of the cokehead on “Ninety Bucks” celebrating her friendship with her dealer or the loner who’s wrong about finding true love on “It Hits When It Hits” are the stuff of Randy Newman songs, but Finn’s relentlessly compassionate to his creations, as though any dearth of sympathy to them would feel like punching down.
Aural perspectives shift throughout We All Want the Same Things. Outsized guitars momentarily muscle their way past the other instruments, horns make themselves known without formally soloing, female vocals from Annie Nero and Caithlin De Marrais sometimes harmonize, but often drift past in the background, suggesting voices from lives independent of the story Finn’s telling. The musical variety props up weaker lyrics -- if the his side/her side parallel structure feels a little pat on “Tangletown,” in which a well-off middle-aged divorcee and a bohemian party girl find mutual uses for each other, the precision of the arrangement makes the whole scenario feel staged, suggesting that they're aware of the roles they’re playing.
Yes, Finn does returns to haunt his old Minnesotan turf -- when he released the lead single, “Preludes,” in January, our intrepid sleuthing ferreted out seven Twin Cities references. But that song’s St. Paul isn’t buzzing with the cool druggy lowlife that Lifter Puller panned and zoomed through or that the Hold Steady sees as a first step to transcendence. It’s 1994, and Minnesota’s lost its NHL team to Dallas, Uptown has lost its scenesters to Seattle, and the drunken narrator has somehow not lost his driver’s license despite encountering an snowbank inconveniently placed between him and Edina. Like most of Finn’s stories here, it's all middle, with beginnings implied and endings uncertain, anecdotes tumbling after one another as characters search for their plot.
For the finale, “Be Honest,” the horns that lurked behind previous tracks join together to support the woozy march of two Lake Street drifters, mocked by teens for puking on Metro Transit, vaguely aware that the increase in general cruelty stems from the political climate, so trusting they think “stop it” will work as a safe word for them and so gentle it just may. “Maybe it’s just best if we both take care of ourselves,” Finn sings to close the album, and after an album of wounded people searching for someone to take care of them. that suggestion of independence comes as a minor epiphany.