From the misadventures of Holly, Charlemagne, and Gideon on Separation Sunday to their treatise on Boys And Girls In America, The Hold Steady has long been defined by singing songs for and about the American youth, something that was always curious but never suspect when you consider that Craig Finn, the band’s principle songwriter, was in his mid-30s for the band’s creative peaks. Now 40, Finn has recorded his first solo album in Austin, Texas with the help of members of White Denim, Heartless Bastards, Phosphorescent, and Centro-matic, as well as producer Mike McCarthy. The result is a more mature sound with more mature revelations, an outfit that looks good on Finn, proving him to more than just the singer for the world’s best bar band. He could also kick ass at that same bar’s open mic night.
But, for its stylistic differences, trading crunchy guitar riffs for pedal steel, Finn takes-on his vocals like it is business as usual. On “Jackson,” Finn is the same poetic storyteller that he has always been, but rather than placing himself at the center of the story, it is pieced together as a memory, with its refrain asking “Why are you asking about Jackson, that was a long time ago?” In the end, there is no colossal flameout or resurrection, but, rather, “Jackson just doesn’t show up to the party.” Elsewhere, Finn’s age shows in unlikely ways. “Terrified Eyes” sounds like fuckin’ “Kodachrome” applied to the problems a couple would go through after years of partying together. And, this older and wiser Finn isn’t always a good thing, as we see on “Honolulu Blues,” where Finn nearly parodies himself, sounding as uninspired as ever over the most innocuous of backing blues music. But, even at his worst, a verse about globalization through religion still rings true, with references to Joan Didion and Graham Greene finding at least one listener who gets the references. Because, honestly, if you are listening to anything Craig Finn has ever written and not willing to play with his lingo and references, you probably aren’t having nearly as much fun as you could be.
But, as admirable as much of Clear Heart Full Eyes is as a diversion, it can’t help but feel slight at times. Sure, it is nice to hear Finn explore different themes through a more rootsy music palette, but it never goes beyond being pleasant, and its most affecting moments leave the listener wondering what the song would sound like as a Hold Steady number. “No Future,” easily the best track on the record, is the closest Finn comes to rocking, even name-checking heroes like Freddie Mercury and Johnny Rotten, but you would have to be lying to yourself if you didn’t admit that it could be better with a little more muscle behind its punches. “Rented Room,” another particularly successful tune, feels as directionless as the song’s protagonist until half-way through where Finn and his backing band connect for a moment where the lyrics finally take a backseat. It’s great, but it also illuminates the fact that these moments lack throughout the rest of the album.
Still, with much of the flash stripped aways from him, Craig Finn proves that he is a formidable songwriter first and foremost, and here we find him sitting on a stool and playing songs at his most comfortable. For fans or anyone with an inclination towards his music, it is a treat. And, the last time we heard from Craig Finn, on Heaven Is Whenever, a large contingent of listeners began to worry that he might be on the decline as a songwriter and Clear Heart Full Eyes reverses this downward trend. Finn has said that finding hope through bleak situations is one of the prevalent themes of this new record, and if anything, at least I feel hope for his musical direction.