I’m an unapologetic The Hold Steady fan. Some of my best concert experiences have been in a crowd of people, cold beer in one hand with the other raised to the ceiling, singing along to every word and every chorus , even from the songs and albums that the critics may have dismissed. Their bar-rock sound is Bruce Springsteen meets Elvis Costello – talk-singing over swelling guitars, guiding you towards the promised land of half-drunk choruses and rousing vocals from everyone in the area. As Craig himself said it, “our songs are sing-along songs.”
Understandably, I always approach solo outings from my favorite bands with some anxiety, especially when the artist says they want to go in a totally different direction from their usual style (as Craig did in interviews leading up to the album’s release). It certainly didn’t help that the first song released from the album, “Honolulu Blues,” seemed a muted effort. Thus, I went into listening to Clear Heart Full Eyes with a good bit of trepidation.
To say that this album is a totally different direction from The Hold Steady is a bit of an understatement – it’s possibly about the furthest thing one could expect musically given Craig Finn’s previous endeavors (let’s not forget that before THS, he was in Lifter Puller). Eschewing the bar-rock and post-punk sounds that made those bands great, Finn here leans towards folk, Americana, and even country for most of the songs on the album. It’s certainly a quieter album than the ones he’s appeared on before, leaving lots of room for his lyrics to shine – unfortunately, sometimes the music proves too slow and quiet, drawing you away from the world he’s created. The album starts with the slow-going and drawn-out “Apollo Bay” and unfortunately doesn’t ever really pick up too much after that – while “No Future” seems to bring in a bit more of the guitars that we know him for, it’s still a far cry from anything you’d ever hear from The Hold Steady. Finn references Freddie Mercury and Johnnie Rotten on the latter – it’s just too bad that those two rock icons aren’t around to help influence more of the album throughout.
Thematically, there’s always been an underlying Christianity in The Hold Steady’s music due to Finn’s Catholic upbringing. Those themes are even more prevalent here, with the apostles, the “savior,” Calvary, Golgotha, and Christ himself getting referenced in the first half of the album alone. And that’s all before you get to the folksy “New Friend Jesus.” What this says about Finn, his personal beliefs, and his religion we may never know, but here Jesus proves more than just a minor reference point and becomes a full-fledged character in the narration of the album, crossing in and out of songs and storylines.
One of the great things about The Hold Steady was the storytelling – characters and places carried across albums (who can forget Charlemagne, Holly, or Ybor City), themes of despair and addiction and sadness and separation with random interjections and highlights of the exact opposites, love and happiness and joy and togetherness. It’s a testament to Craig Finn’s songwriting abilities that even here, on an album where the music isn’t all that great, the lyrics and people that populate his songs manage to save them. He creates fully-fleshed out people with his songs, never treating them as bit parts or caricatures or offhandedly dismissing them. In the span of a television commercial break, he manages to make you care about where Jackson disappeared to (“Jackson”) or what will happen to Shannon (“Terrified Eyes”). While they’re filled with dysfunction, from depression to substance abuse to disconnection from everyone around them, they evoke emotions while only existing in a fictional world of Craig’s own creation. (It’s no wonder that the title of the album references Friday Night Lights, another fictional world that evoked strong emotions from its viewers.)
While I’m appreciative of the solo effort here by Finn, I can’t say I enjoyed it all. I’m certainly glad that he didn’t try to shoehorn the styles and themes of the songs here into The Hold Steady’s sound, as they just wouldn’t fit. Overall, it’s an average effort by an above average songwriter and performer – luckily, it’s his songwriting that saves the day here, even when the new directions he takes the music prove lackluster.