I think the best way to compare the songwriting material in 40-year-old
Craig Finn’s first-ever solo album with the excellent stuff that
constitutes his catalogue with Brooklyn-by-Minneapolis rockers The Hold
Steady is to just embrace the truth that you can’t have fun all the
“Clear Heart Full Eyes” (yes, the title’s a play on the catchphrase from “Friday Night Lights,” of which Finn is admittedly an enormous fan) really seems to follow the groping, narcotized and promiscuous teenagers that characterize The Hold Steady’s discography, as it moves away, discovers integrity, grows up, and/or finds Jesus.
It follows pretty logically then, that these new stories aren’t always very happy. These people are now experienced — hence the “Full Eyes” of the title — and it’s far from pretty.
Take “Rented Room,” for instance, wherein producer Mike McCartney’s production (Finn traveled to Austin to work with the Spoon and ...And They Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead producer) is so sparse that the reality of the situation — “Playing records in a rented room” — seems magnified and immediate. Finn’s not afraid to approach boredom in his subject matter (“When things got bad we would drink and sit”) and while that worked pretty well whenever THS guitarist Tad Kubler and ex-keyboardist Franz Nikolai were backing him, my brain felt lapses in interest at times. The backing hollers and explosive guitar solos gone, Finn’s voice is suddenly much more homely.
However, album opener “Apollo Bay” (with its eerie, groaning guitars and muted drums) and several other of these tracks tackle loneliness beautifully, imbuing the feeling with a lot of Catholic imagery: of 12 apostles, failed evangelism and so on. Side note: I wonder if the “my head was really hurting, so I had to take it to Apollo Bay” line came from too many drunken Hold Steady sing-alongs.
It’s also worth noting that Finn drops little scenes and instances into his songwriting here that connect to THS songs, i.e. “the back half of the theater” in “Jackson,” which also appears on “Multitude of Casualties” on the 2005 album, “Separation Sunday.”
Musically, there’s not a whole lot to write home about here, at least in terms of breaking sonic ground. I’m a fan of McCarthy’s work, and it’s his signature spot-on here, climaxing in prettily toned guitars and cymbals in sync with Finn’s songwriting. “Honolulu Blues” is probably the most fun they had recording, as it locks into a slowed-down version of the guitar groove from Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” while Finn evangelizes for embittered ex-Catholics everywhere. “New Friend Jesus”’s silly sing-along chorus grew on me with each listen, and album closer “Not Much Left of Us” is worth a handful of listens, even if Finn sounds a little enamored with his “soft spot on a piece of fruit” imagery.
I suppose this is a good record — I really did enjoy it and am glad to have listened. But I’m also very glad that Finn’s indulging the benefit of indie success with an already-established band because I can’t really imagine his solo career going really far without it.