It is nearly impossible to discuss Craig Finn without first mentioning his voice, and then attaching some sort of disclaimer to it. Though an artist of his caliber, with the lyrical acumen of a Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell, should never have their voice cited as a deal-breaker, he has been, and likely will continue to be, for the duration of his career.
You see, Finn’s vocals, whether delivered in singing or yelling mode (mostly the latter), have the gale force and precision of a Van Damme helicopter kick to the dome. His delivery, for all its volume, however, has none of the asperity you might expect. When he’s yelling, he’s more like a close buddy at a crowded party, fresh from the gravity bong and straining to be heard above the din of everyone else. He’s equally piercing and emphatic, and what he has to say is almost always a face melter. You’re not looking around for an out, exhausted by the browbeating and stoner ramblings. No, as lead singer of The Hold Steady, this guy is shouting things like: “She mouthed the words along to ‘Running Up That Hill’ / That song got scratched into her soul / And he never heard that song before / But he still got the metaphor / Yeah he knew some people who’d switched places before”.
This gem of a Kate Bush allusion graces “Hornets! Hornets!”, the opening cut from The Hold Steady’s triumphant Separation Sunday, one of the finest straight-ahead rock albums of the 2000s. It is a tighter-than-a-sketchy-uncle embrace, and is wholly recommendable in spite of (because of) Finn’s raucous vocals. It’s a slab of rock every bit as important as, say, the Modern Lovers’ self-titled or Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. And, to drive home Finn’s laconic finesse, he effectively sums up the album’s 45-minute runtime using seven one-syllable words, almost perfectly palindromic, and likely responsible for more than a couple of contemporaries’ fits of hair-pulling and hand-wringing, as their comparative inferiority reflects like a mirror from the tops of whiskey-filled tumblers: “Tramps like us / And we like tramps.”
Now, if you’ve even a passing recognition of “Born to Run” and its nine-word fulcrum, then you’re likely able to acknowledge that entire careers can pass an artist by without a line of such symmetrical gravitas and sheer creativity. Finn’s career, however, is so full of these, it’s easy to envision him plucking them like so many $20 bills from a fat roll. And when someone lavishes you with such riches, the sound of his voice becomes secondary, if not tertiary.
These days, Finn essentially splits his time between The Hold Steady and releasing solo endeavors. He and his band dropped full-lengths in 2019 and 2021, while his two most recent solitary offerings were loosed in 2019 and 2020 (though the latter was more of an odds and sods affair than an album proper). While neither of these manifestations generate the sort of gushing platitudes reserved for The Hold Steady’s mid-2000s arc, both are still releasing music that, for almost any other band, would be career-best peak material. Finn’s new record, A Legacy of Rentals, is imbued with enough energetic ingenuity to keep this run intact.
Finn has said that memory, as well the ephemeral nature of everything from one’s possessions to their soul, is the overarching lyrical theme of the record. The lead single and album’s leadoff track, “Messing With the Settings”, is emblematic of this, with lines evoking a eulogy given for someone whom the speaker no longer knows well, but who remains important to them nonetheless.
Listeners who are only familiar with The Hold Steady will likely notice that Finn’s vocals are sometimes multi-tracked when he’s singing, and when he’s not, his typical roar is more conversational but still brimming with confidence. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since most of the instrumentation that augments him here is acoustic. A welcome inclusion to a majority of the album’s dozen tracks is a 14-piece string section, and with it, another artist like Emmylou Harris or Steve Earle could sound right at home here.
On “Birthdays”, the idea of Harris and Finn dueting doesn’t seem all that far-fetched, especially when the vocals of Cassandra Jenkins rise to meet Finn’s during the song’s chorus. “Birthdays” also sports a sprightly sax that can’t help but call to mind the bleatings of Clarence Clemons.
Rentals is uniformly great, and each track boasts its share of both gorgeous instrumentation and lines that are alternately poetic and prosaic. One of the clear standouts, “The Amarillo Kid”, starts out sounding almost like Spoon’s “Everything Hits at Once”, in no small part thanks to the airtight production, before miscellaneous percussion, 80s sound effects (think “Owner of a Lonely Heart”), and a growling guitar panned to the right fold themselves into the mix, and Finn reminds the listener of his sharp perspicacity with lines like, “I was born down in the handle / I was brought up by the strap / When the Devil starts to show up in your dreams / Then it’s hard to get your dreams back.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone who’s loved either The Hold Steady or Finn’s solo work in the past being disappointed by A Legacy of Rentals. The aforementioned roll of $20 bills Finn taps for his lyrics is as bulky as ever, and his delivery, while certainly dialled back, combines with the lines in a way that renders them stately and effortless. It’s almost baffling to find a musician still creating such deeply gratifying art this far into his career. Let’s hope that he continues to glean inspiration from these universal themes like memory, and that he reflects his sentiments back via the quirky, skewed angles that haven’t failed him yet.