On his first solo record, the Hold Steady frontman is backed by a more somber bar band, the kind that gets the drunks slow dancing instead of fist pumping.
If you've seen Craig Finn on stage with the Hold Steady, you know he's a pretty excitable guy. He gets so worked up – that beaming smile playing across his face – that he often forgets to play his guitar, preferring to clap double-time through whatever song the band may be knocking out. It's fitting zeal for his band's music, with all its beer-sloshing, trad-rock glory, but on his first solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes, that unbridled energy is decidedly muted.
Here Finn plays it much quieter, his bleat down to confessional speak-singing. Some of this is a function of striking out on his own – the songs here are built around his guitar and voice, with ramshackle instrumentation lilting around them – but it also has to do with a shift in perspective. The characters in his work with the Hold Steady are beer-soaked blowhards, people frayed at the edges, only able to see themselves in the bar-back mirror, happy to shout their failures standing on the mahogany bar top. Those people, though they search for hope, are resigned to the powders and the pills until they run out or ruin them. There's an odd pride in all of it, but the people Finn sings of on Clear Heart Full Eyes are much more subdued. They may be in the same barrooms, but they're off in the corner, isolated, picking at the edges of a coaster, wondering where it all went wrong or if they can still get it all back. If Finn's Hold Steady characters are all defensive bluster, his characters here are much more somber and self-aware.
The focus on these characters makes the songs feel melancholic, even if they too work their way towards some glimmer of hope. These loners find no escape in drink or getting lost in the past, though they surely try. Opener "Apollo Bay" finds the narrator with a head that's hurting, and so he drifts down to that titular Australian bay. On "Western Pier", he wanders on the beach. People live in rented rooms or hang on the balcony during a party. Whether it’s the coastline or the outskirts of town or the other side of the sliding doors at that soiree, these people exists on the edge of things and try like hell to make it work.
Even stuck inside the quotidian details of life, Finn paints these characters as both depressed by their situation and pushing for something more. His choice of details is, as always, excellent. Standout "No Future" shows the narrator having his frequent buyer's card stamped at the coffee shop and coming to the conclusion "I'm pretty sure we're all going to die." It's a dark moment, to be sure, and couples up with "Jackson", the story of an old friend who went off the rails and disappeared, or "Honolulu Blues" where people feel free while everything around them crumbles. If it all seems overly dark, Finn manages to infuse these characters with a sense of exploration, even if they travel to new places only to get "the souvenirs to prove that we were there." These people are unmoored yet stuck, dragged down by their situation yet striving to find or make a new one. But they do it quietly, in the dark corners of the bar and the side streets of the city.
Like the ragged lives of these people, the music here is equally both assured and unruly. Finn and his fellow musicians recorded the album in under a week, with no more than three takes a song, and after a few overdubs it was ready to go. The resulting sound feels fresh and of the moment, a mix of dusty country, blues stomp and – deep under it all – a sublime, swaying take on punk energy. As the characters act as muted counterpoints to the loudmouths in the Hold Steady tunes, so here the music plays like the tunes of a more sombre bar band, the kind that gets the drunks slow dancing and feeling nostalgic instead of fist pumping.
Mostly this shift works, and Finn's confessional, hushed voice hits with pitch-perfect subtlety. What's interesting, though, is that some of his common tropes – mainly religion – don't fit quite as well here. The band is at its best when they mesh country, folk and rock music into their own spontaneous hybrid. A song like "New Friend Jesus", on the other hand, feels like a forced attempt at country, and Finn's tale of misguided faith feels equally inorganic, which is odd coming from a guy who nails Christian references so often. In other places, particularly "Terrified Eyes", the song feels like a demo for his other band, like a rock song not quite fully fleshed out.
So there are some growing pains on Clear Heart Full Eyes, but mostly this is a compelling and rewarding turn for Finn. He proves himself most adept at the slow, spacey heartbreakers – closer "Not Much Left of Us" steals the show – and offers an interesting twist on the kind of songwriting we expect from him. When the Hold Steady ramp back up, who knows if Finn will keep his solo project going, but there's enough on this album to hope he does, because this one feels like he's just getting started.