Craig Finn spent a lot of time thinking about fish tanks in the spring of 2020.
The Hold Steady singer had moved out of his apartment in Brooklyn to stay with family for his own safety while his partner, a nurse, cared for COVID patients. Friends were fleeing the city for less fraught, more spacious accommodations upstate. Yet wherever you lived, whatever you were doing, there was no getting away from the reality of those months. Having no way out of it brought images of home aquariums to Finn’s mind as he spent that initial lockdown working on new songs.
“You know, you’re stuck in a fish tank,” Finn says. “It’s small, you’re swimming in something and everyone can see you. It may feel like the whole world, but it’s limited.”
That same concept applies to many of the characters in Finn’s songs, particularly on his new solo LP A Legacy of Rentals. Fish-tank imagery appears in four of the 10 tracks on the album, first as an unorthodox signifier of status — “every dealer has a fish tank,” he sings on “The Amarillo Kid” — and later as a metaphor for being stuck or wanting a change.
“I’ve always been interested in small scenes, where people think they might be operating on a bigger picture than they are,” Finn says. “You know, the big fish in the small pond, if you will. I think that’s an attractive character to me.”
A Legacy of Rentals is Finn’s fifth solo LP, and the first since his 2019 album I Need a New War wrapped up what he came to regard as a trilogy. That record and the two that preceded it, 2015’s Faith in the Future and 2017’s We All Want the Same Things, are about people who find ways to persevere through life’s obstacles, many of which they’ve created for themselves. A Legacy of Rentals shifts the emphasis: there are more spoken-word story songs, a different sonic palette that includes strings instead of horns and more use of closer-than-close-harmony backing vocals from Cassandra Jenkins and Annie Nero, who breathe an air of somber grace into these songs. Also, it’s an album about memory.
“Thematically I think the first three, a lot of the songs are about survivors, you know, people that are trying to keep their heads above water,” Finn says. “And I think on this one, by definition, a lot of them are about people who didn’t survive, meaning a lot of people are — a lot of them are remembering people that are no longer with us.”
Whether he’s singing or speaking, Finn gives first-person accounts of characters remembering people they’ve known and things they’ve done. Their accounts don’t always line up. That’s particularly true on “Never Any Horses,” where the narrator describes what he remembers about a set of events while acknowledging that another principal in the story recalls a very different scene. “The history’s rewritten / When the memories get meddled with,” Finn sings, backed by squalling electric guitar and wordless backing vocals.
“When you get older, and I’m having these all the time now, when you’re talking to a friend, you’re like, ‘I don’t remember it the same way. I remember it a little bit differently,’” says Finn, who recently turned 50. “And we have two very different versions of the same thing. And that’s very interesting to me.”
Memory also serves another function in these songs. Though A Legacy of Rentals took shape during the early stages of the pandemic, Finn was careful to avoid writing specifically about what was happening. Yet the characters in these songs are assessing and evaluating their own pasts as they recall some watershed event, or the times before it. It’s as if the singer is looking ahead and trying to gauge how we will collectively remember the past few years, once there’s been enough distance to have sanded away some of the rougher edges.
“I was very aware that we’re living in this historical moment,” Finn says. “I was thinking I didn’t want to write too much about the pandemic itself, but the idea that, yeah, we’re trying to remember these moments, and we’re imperfect in our ability to remember — like, the story’s changed and little details change and then we build up stories and narratives that sometimes are slightly incorrect.”
Sometimes we want to preserve certain moments in our memories. Other moments are simply impossible to forget. That was Finn’s sense while watching “underground journalist streams” from Minneapolis, his hometown, after police officers killed George Floyd killed there in May 2020. “I’m seeing people I knew or recognized from back home. And I’m also seeing places I frequented that are burning,” he says. “It was a very profound and a very strange thing to watch.”
That sentiment doesn’t appear directly on A Legacy of Rentals, either, but the characters in several songs seem to be figuring out how they feel in the aftermath of an unexpected event: a car crash on “Due to Depart,” or a person who gets word that someone he used to know has died on “Messing with the Settings,” one of the spoken-word tracks that unfolds like you’re hearing it from a casual acquaintance who needs to unburden himself.
“I remember when my mom passed away — or actually, when 9/11 happened, you’re like, ‘I thought I would feel this way. But I’m not sure how I’m feeling because I don’t have an emotion to access for this,’” Finn says. “The beginning of the pandemic was like that, too, where it’s like, ‘This is kind of weird. We’re walking around, it feels very quiet, very eerie outside. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’”
His solution was to figure it out through his lyrics. As often happens with perceptive literary works — and that’s very much what Finn’s lyrics are — he found the emotions to access by creating a context for them that he could relate to. “That was the only thing I could think of to do, or the only way I felt like I could control it,” Finn says. “I just started writing.”
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.