9/11 songs suck. They just do.
“But what about Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising?” hollers one crowd member wearing a red, white, and blue bandanna.
Alright, I’ll give you that, but even The Rising comes piled high with filler that only gets outshone because the bright spots are so damn bright and its creator’s intentions were just what the country needed at the time. Indeed, watching The Boss perform “You’re Missing” on Saturday Night Live was probably the first pop culture moment that felt right and true after the towers fell.
But, for every The Rising, there’s a “Hole In the World”, a “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”, a “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” … I could keep going, so maybe just read this handy Wikipedia entry on the matter. Even Neil Young wasn’t immune from writing a shitty song about September 11th. And yet, as much as I hated the sentimentality and jingoism of most of these tunes when they came out, it becomes clearer and clearer to me each day why they were written. Like most of the songs birthed by the event, 9/11 was awful. It was really, really fucking awful, cleaving America into pre-tragedy and post-tragedy worlds that actually earned their hyphens. Craig Finn waited nearly 14 years to write his 9/11 song. He waited until we were far enough immersed in our post-9/11 world that we had the ability to recognize it as being post-anything. As a result, his song is actually good — great, even.
That’s because, even this far down the line, Finn only comments personally and spiritually on the tragedy, never once dipping into what he, the government, or anyone should have done following the attacks. Instead, he and his buddies — numb and confused — went up to someone’s roof to get loaded and watch the towers fall. While he didn’t know it at the time, there was a woman that worked in one of the buildings who evacuated even when her employer told her not to. She survived, and that messed her up for a while. Finn was messed up for a while, too, but they met years later and fell in love. All of this gets alluded to or at least foreshadowed in “Newmyer’s Roof”, a song that shows the soon-to-be frontman of The Hold Steady mustering the strength to recover from a very long lost weekend. He asks about a girl he’s seen around. He eventually starts a band. He’s able to finally resist a drug dealer named (like so many of Finn’s characters) after someone in the Bible. He somehow comes out on the other end when lots of New Yorkers don’t.
Don’t get too excited just yet, as his story doesn’t have a storybook-happy ending. It could never be storybook-happy when Finn, like every other human being on the planet, has had to face even more bouts of considerable hardship since 2001: divorce, the loss of his mother two years ago — the list will always go on. The ending could never be storybook-happy when Finn, like every other human being on the planet, has to face the fact that he will unquestionably die someday. And that’s alright. Recognizing this fact somehow makes it all better. Recognizing that we’re all stuck in some pointless cycle somehow makes the cycle not pointless at all. We’re all in this together. That’s your happy ending.
And that’s the thesis of Faith in the Future. It’s simple, really, something you probably could have gotten from just reading the title of the album instead of this review — this idea of cautious optimism, or even realistic optimism. Not everyone breaks free; I have little hope for the woman whose phone call gets cut short because her gun-wielding boyfriend is coming in “Sarah, Calling From a Hotel”. The same goes for the victim of the reverse crucifixion in “Saint Peter Upside Down”. But throughout many of the other songs, someone breaks free, and that’s what counts. The narrator of opener “Maggie, I’ve Been Searching for Our Son”, for instance, has the good sense to flee the Manson Family-like cult he joined and return to a life of simple romance. This pattern of breath-catching escape comes full circle by the time the album closes with “I Was Doing Fine (Then a Few People Died)”, where a nameless female character is also able to transcend her troubled, if less sensational, past. There will always be the violent movies that remind her of her mistakes, but those are just movies. She’s going to be okay. For now.
These small, thankful moments of joy are a far cry from the full-blown ecstasy of The Hold Steady’s most anthem-y anthems, and that’s the point. Finn has purposely toned down the density of his lyrics to deliver something a little more grounded, a little more human in ways that involve resurrections of only the metaphorical (definitely not the literal) kind.
Still, Craig Finn will always be Craig Finn, a poet laureate whose million-dollar phrases deserve million-dollar arrangements, and that’s the one spot where Faith in the Future sometimes falters. Whether it’s the more realistic subject matter or a quest to separate his solo work from his day job, Finn seems determined to keep things somewhat muted, so much that when the subdued strumming gets punctuated by small bursts of variety — the woozy horns on “Roman Guitars”, the bubbling keys on “Trapper Avenue” — the waters end up tastefully muddy instead of exploding into geysers. That’s not to say that every song has to be a geyser or that Finn even wants them to be. It’s just that with such lush verbosity and his slurred yet hopeful voice, there’s a slightly jarring incongruity between music and lyrics. But if you can get past that, Faith in the Future might be the record to give you faith in your own future. Until you die, of course. Which you will. We all will. And that’s okay.
Essential Tracks: “Maggie, I’ve Been Searching For Our Son”, “Newmyer’s Roof”, and “I Was Doing Fine (Then a Few People Died)”