Craig Finn-Clear Heart Full Eyes
“Good ol’ Freddie Mercury is the only guy that advises me,” Craig Finn sings on “No Future”, from his first solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. Later in the same song, he calls out another 1970s rock icon: “The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from good ol’ Johnny Rotten,” he confesses, before launching into a few lines from “God Save the Queen”. As rock touchstones go, Queen and the Sex Pistols aren’t too far off the beaten path; he could have quoted Alex Chilton or Damo Suzuki or even Elvis Costello, but that would miss the point. Finn is after the artists and music that try to make rock a communal rather than a private experience. So he’s an unlikely hero for the cloistered and segmented indie rock crowd, which we’re told prizes obscurity over accessibility. Ironically for a band whose lyrics depicted geographically specific subsubcultures, Finn’s day-job group the Hold Steadybrought a bar-band approach back into the indie rock world. They strove for broad appeal, which circa 2005′s Separation Sunday sharpened their guitar attack and made them sound almost dangerous.
Over time, however, that same populism softened the Hold Steady’s edges and blunted their urgency, and Finn’s solo album, whose title is cribbed and scrambled from “Friday Night Lights”, may be the culmination of that particular trajectory. If most solo albums at least make an effort to distinguish themselves from the artist’s main outlet– to justify their very existence– Finn’s chief tactic on these songs is to play everything close to the chest, to dial the music back and the intensity down. That’s fine for songs such as “Western Pier” and closer “Not Much Left of Us”, but deadly for “When No One’s Watching” and “Honolulu Blues”, which sound like he’s consciously trying to avoid sounding like his main band. The guitars rarely venture toward riff or melody; instead, they provide atmosphere and mood. But so much of Clear Heart Full Eyes cries out for louder guitars, Springsteen-like drama, and the kind of precise sloppiness the Hold Steady did so well in the late 2000s.
The album works best when it sounds freshest and furthest away from the music we typically associate with Finn. “Terrified Eyes” shuffles around on a laidback beat and a rangy, almost alt-country guitar, as he takes the conspiratorial tone of a tour guide pointing out the sites of crimes and scandals. “New Friend Jesus” rambles acoustically, although Finn makes the title character sound like a punchline. That’s odd considering how much of the album is given over to some of his most blatantly Catholic (or is that catholic?) lyrics. If Separation Sunday rewrote the rules and rituals of religion as street-level spirituality, Clear Heart Full Eyes mostly plays it straight.
Like some of the best Hold Steady albums, these songs are all interconnected, full of recurring characters and settings, so that even when the tempos lag and the guitars noodle,Clear Heart is pulled along by pure narrative momentum, giving it an immersive power that it doesn’t necessarily earn. But that’s Finn’s main appeal: He’s a born storyteller who’s chosen rock as his medium. On Clear Heart he creates a new world with unique characters and rules, which are concrete, specific, and evocative. While it pales alongside some of the Hold Steady’s best albums, these songs are so entangled with those people and places– with those Holly and Charlemagne mythologies– that they never grow tedious or ignorable. So perhaps Finn is turning into someone like Mercury or Rotten, acting as adviser to a new generation of listeners. Like them, he came on like a man on a mission, but now that it’s been accomplished, he sounds like a man trying to figure out what comes next. Clear Heartis just good enough to keep us listening.
Stephen M. Deusner