“A Bathtub in the Kitchen” finds The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn offering insightful looks at the darker side of the types of characters he writes about on I Need a New War.
“A Bathtub in the Kitchen” – Craig Finn
The hardest people to say “no” to are the ones that helped shape you. People who let you stay on their couch, teach you bar-etiquette, or show you some semblance of community can still show themselves to be bad, harmful, or toxic. Craig Finn explores both nostalgia and hard truths in I Need a New War’s “A Bathtub in the Kitchen.” Finn’s in-depth descriptions of the song’s subject Francis are romantic but honest. While he doesn’t shy away from the difficult aspects of his friendship with Francis, Finn is still fair to the fun he had when he first met Francis.
Like so many of his songs, “A Bathtub in the Kitchen” is a booze-breathed singalong with strung out characters. It’s hard to tell if this song leans closer to the autobiographical end of Finn’s spectrum, but, like his best songs, it rings true for a sect of people searching for something to believe in. The hazy nostalgia is aided by the arrangement of Finn’s backing band. While Finn’s adoration for punk and fetishism for classic rock is apparent in most Hold Steady songs, I Need a New War (released April 26, 2019 via Partisan Records) shows Finn commanding his own voice and sound, even more so than 2017’s We All Want the Same Things. With mellow guitars and often piano-driven songs, Finn taps into his inner singer-songwriter that’s more Warren Zevon than Paul Westerberg. Finn’s portraits throughout War are more true to life than so many of his past songs, but they also seem to exist in the same world. After having sex in restaurant parking lots or drinking in ER’s, you either take vacations to Massachusetts or stay strung out praying for birds.
“A Bathtub in the Kitchen” tells a story for anyone that’s ever known an addict. Finn makes this evident in the first verse: “Francis, is there some way to help that’s not just handing you money?” After running into the old friend after an unnamed accident, Finn assesses Francis’ situation. He realizes but also justifies why Francis still lives in a dive of an apartment: “It’s a whole other scene, but how can you blame ’em?” It’s part realization that Francis isn’t necessarily a beneficial person to have in your life, but part yearning to retain the friendship and sense of wonder that the chorus provides.
I was waiting for a package
I was hoping something happens
I was desperate for New York to take me out
I was trying to find my footing
I was doing things I shouldn’t
Francis let me crash out on his couch
Where Hold Steady songs are declarations from an end-times preacher, Finn’s solo singing has more in common with the stoic man who drops into the bar a few times a week for three to five drinks.
The repeated bridge blurs the line between gracious and fed up. Finn’s refrain is “I can’t keep saying thank you,” which can be read as a sign of gratefulness, but Finn sings it like he’s saying, “I can’t keep helping you out. I’ve found my own way.” Despite all this, the third verse is the most devastating, as Finn bounces between reminiscing and current day questioning:
Francis always said, “You gotta befriend the bartenders”
He told me to tip really big on the opening round
Francis did me a favor I’ll always remember
He let me stay at his place when I first came to town
Francis said the guy at his job’s got a thing for the new girl
His landlord’s a dick and he’s sure that he won’t understand
The 200 bucks will help him breathe a bit easy
Francis, do you even have a plan?
The favors people do for you when you’re young seem like debts that will never get repaid. Finn’s flashback to when he first came to New York then hearing present day stories about Francis is disheartening. You can hear him remembering all the good times and snapping back to Francis’ asking him for money.
Sometimes when people have falling outs, the bridge is burned, and the box of memories is buried in the backyard. Sometimes, you hold the memory dear, even if you can’t imagine speaking to the person. We don’t often prepare to confront these feelings head on, but “A Bathtub in the Kitchen” depicts a situation where you’re forced to. While we don’t know the context that Finn has run into Francis, the memories that the meeting brings and Francis’ current behavior tell us everything we need to know. It’s one of the most moving of the ten short stories of I Need a New War.
“A Bathtub in the Kitchen” – Craig Finn
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📸 © Shervin Lainez