You know and love Craig Finn through his role as frontman for The Hold Steady. Now, he’ll be taking on a new role: solo artist! Yes, for those of you concerned about the state of The Hold Steady, fear not, for this is just a side project that won’t affect the band – at least not directly. The entire reason Finn has chosen to go it alone was less because the rest of the band wasn’t ready and more because he wanted to explore other sounds. The Hold Steady’s music is often celebratory, bar room rock with a Springsteen-like appeal. You go to a Hold Steady show with the notion that you’ll have a wildly fun time, fist in the air and a beer in your other hand. With his debut solo effort Clear Heart, Full Eyes, Finn chooses to step back from the energy and heavy guitars, focusing instead on introspective alt-country ballads and mid-tempo rock. It’s a different side to a relatively one-sided guy, though we’re left questioning exactly how necessary of an exercise it ultimately is.
One thing that’s not in doubt are Finn’s chops as a lyricist. His topics du jour in the past have been religion, failed relationships and good times with friends. On Clear Heart, Full Eyes he maintains that same trend, though with the slower and quieter songs the fun bits sort of take a back seat. He’s not without his sense of humor on some occasions however, as evidenced on “New Friend Jesus”, riffing on stigmata with the lines, “People say we suck at sports, but they don’t understand/it’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands.” One of the main changes the lyrics on Finn’s solo effort bring are a real sense of aging and the often depressing aspects that come along with it. Where his Hold Steady characters were mostly dealing with youthful follies and general messing around, the new characters are middle aged and living in a world of regret. On “No Future”, there’s a resigned and given up mentality that ultimately results in the line, “I’m alive, except for the inside”. And the end of the record brings a laser beam-like focus to breakups and winding up single for the rest of your life. When everyone else gets married, has kids and a family, Finn’s character is alone living in a “Rented Room”. He reminisces about a woman he used to love on “Balcony”, expressing frustration in lines like, “Saw you and him out on the balcony/it was the same thing you did with me”. The record closes with “Not Much Left of Us”, about the mutually assured destruction of two people that weren’t right for one another. “The part of us that still remains is rotten and bruised/like the soft spot on a piece of fruit”, he sings somberly and with a sincerity that makes you believe he’s actually lived it, even if he hasn’t.
As much of a bummer as the lyrics on Clear Heart, Full Eyes can be, the purposeful and off-the-cuff conversational manner in which they were written maximizes their power. They overwhelm everything else about the album, and that’s a very good thing because not much else really shines here. The lack of upbeat or even uptempo numbers makes the record a bit difficult to get through. It’s 45 minutes of darker, relatively depressing material, with only a wry smirk or a wink here and there. Songs like “New Friend Jesus” and “Honolulu Blues” function as would-be singles, picking up enough mojo or a halfway decent hook to make them some of the more memorable moments on an album that mostly drags along in a blur. Much of the musical backdrop for these songs was composed by friends of Finn in bands like Heartless Bastards, Centro-matic, White Denim and Phosphorescent, and you can sort of hear their varying styles across the songs. Alt-country (complete with slide guitars & violins) permeates songs like “Terrified Eyes”, “Balcony” and “Not Much Left of Us”, while a more rock and blues mentality gets taken on tracks like “Apollo Bay” and “No Future”. In spite of the variations in style, nothing is really that far removed from anything else, and Finn’s vocals and lyrics are the glue holding it all together anyways.
It’s a little difficult to tell exactly who the audience for Clear Heart, Full Eyes is supposed to be. Maybe it is middle-aged guys living a life they never intended. In some ways that’s every middle-aged person, as we’ve all had to make certain sacrifices or put our dreams to bed on occasion. The topics discussed here are not unrelatable in the least. But do we really want to dwell on them by listening to this music? Unlike The Hold Steady’s best, this isn’t the sort of record you can throw on at a whim. You need to be in a certain mindset to truly enjoy it or relate to it. Think back to some of the more somber ballads of The Hold Steady. Think of “Citrus” and “First Night” and “Lord, I’m Discouraged” as precursors to this record. If you love those songs and feel like an album’s worth of them if your cup of tea, perhaps Clear Heart, Full Eyes will be exactly what you’ve been looking for. It’s nice that Finn was able to take some time off from his main band and craft a record that truly highlights his songwriting ability and emotional maturity, but it also doesn’t necessarily feel like the concept is worth pursuing any further. He’s had his moment to play the adult, now it’s time to dust himself off, leave the pity party and return to the celebration. The kids are waiting by the bar with their glasses raised.