Well before the pandemic hit, 2020 had a most portentous start for Craig Finn. The series of events kicked off on January 1 and felt more like a bad omen than any fortuitous resolutions, from discovering a dead mouse, offed by his cat Tanti, in his New York City apartment on New Year’s Day to finding out just a few hours later that a friend’s mother was killed in a drunk driving accident. “The year was off to a strange and brutal start,” said Finn. And it kept coming.
By March, while on tour with The Hold Steady, Finn learned that his close friend Bryan Dilworth had passed away suddenly at the age of 51. Then, the pandemic hit, and he had to relocate to a friend’s Brooklyn apartment while his fiancée, a nurse, worked endless hours with COVID patients. And then Finn remotely witness the tragic murder of George Floyd in his hometown of Minneapolis. “I saw faces that I recognized in the throngs,” says Finn. “I was angry at the injustice, but also mourning some part of the Minneapolis I once knew.” Sifting through a succession of ominous events and Finn began writing his fifth solo album A Legacy of Rentals.
Co-produced with Josh Kaufman, who also worked on Finn’s previous three albums, and recorded in May 2021, A Legacy of Rentals was written during the earlier part of the pandemic and filters through the narrative of a year that incited anning—the realization that awake all the worldly possessions have little value in the end, and that all the most important moments are often short-lived, and of utmost importance is documenting the stories of people who left too soon.
“After the destruction of the past few years, I believe that there is joy in each and every living action, however mundane—walking to the kitchen, missing a train, spilling coffee, cleaning it up, meeting a friend for a meal,” says Finn. “We all want to be remembered. We all want our time here to be consequential. In taking these daily actions, we engage in hope, and we guarantee our unique place in history.”
A Legacy of Rentals is filled with Finn’s own vivid memories and solitary missives that somehow speak to everyone’s experience, in some way or another. Narrated around a cinematic soundboard, incorporating a mix of guitars and synth and the dusting of a 14-piece string orchestra and cooler drizzles of the backing vocals from Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins, Finn ruminates on a loss of familial connections and one’s annual celebration through “Birthdays” to a distressed couple on “The Years We Fell Behind” and his brother’s need for speed and life flashes with “Due to Depart.”
“This record is about memory, how we remember friends that are gone, places that have changed, major events that are part of our past,” says Finn. “The songs are memorials, incantations, affirmations, legends, and prayers. Like all stories, they are subject to the imperfection and limitations of memory, the distortion that happens to our own histories when stretched by time and distance. These small adjustments become part of the stories themselves.”
Though he has had a year to sit with the songs of A Legacy of Rentals Since recording, the songs have barely shifted from the core of their meaning for Finn.
“When you’re doing a record, there’s some part that reveals itself to you,” says Finn. “A lot of the songs were written about how we remember people when they’re gone, or how we remember places that are gone, the way we memorialize things.”
The opener, “Messing with the Settings,” is Finn’s opening eulogy before the more upbeat “Amarillo Kid.” “It’s the legend of ‘Amarillo Kid’ and the way we remember can tell stories about people when they’re gone to try to them,” shares Finn. “I think that’s connected to the time that it was written, in the pandemic.” At the time, The Hold Steady were flying back home from London after playing one of their last shows before the pandemic everything closed down. Flying home on March 9, 2020, Finn got word that his childhood friend Bryan Dilworth had died.
“There was no way at that point to do a funeral or a service, or anything like that—it was all on hold,” says Finn. “When I look back, I wonder if that’s what got me thinking about how we remember people when they’re gone, because there seemed to be no closure on this one, and there wasn’t for a while.”
Writing through A Legacy of Rentals helped Finn process everything that had happened and the importance of storytelling in keeping someone’s memory alive.
“Writing things down is so important, so we don’t forget,” Finn says. “In regards to songwriting, or fiction writing, storytelling—whatever—you’re mining your own memories to create your own experiences and your own memories of those experiences, to create these stories, to create songs. Then you release something, whether it’s an album or a film or a book and that becomes the basis of the memory for yourself and other people. It becomes a mile marker.”
Songwriting is a “two-way street,” adds Finn. “You build this thing out of your own memory,” he says, “so that you can try hopefully create memories for other people too.”
The rhythmic heart beating of “Curtis & Shepard” came from witnessing from afar the murder of George Floyd. “Obviously, I had a lot of anger about the actual event, but watching the things unfold, I was tuned into these news streams of people on the scene,” Finn says, “and one of the strange things was knowing that my hometown would be changed for good. Then I was seeing people I had known throughout the protests.”
Through heavier loads and lost persons, the old girlfriend named “Jessamine,” who had dreams but never talked about them, and the deepened narrative of opposite loves in “A Break from the Barrage,” A Legacy of Rentals leaves off with a positive assertion on the closing “This Is What It Looks Like”—This is what it looks like when we’re joyful.
“I felt like it was a heavy record, and I wanted to leave on a hopeful note,” says Finn. “When you’re talking about memory, you’re talking about remembering things that are gone. It’s just an inherent reminder of enjoying things while you’re here.”
Finn, “Our living moments are inherently hopeful and sacred, and however mundane they might be, they are infused with joy. Our lives as we live them are guaranteed to create a unique place in history that on one level will be forgotten in the big picture but on the other will make a big difference to people around us and not be forgotten.”
Photos: D. James Goodwin / Big Hassle PR