Craig Finn – Clear Heart, Full Eyes

Craig Finn may be separated from his familiar friends, The Hold Steady, but Clear Heart, Full Eyes proves he hasn’t lost his unrivalled ability to write lyrics that absolutely clutch the heart and concept of what it’s like to be young, confused, dystopic and, strangely, joyous. Craig Finn, in his entire career, has never allowed himself to wallow in his own sadness. Even his darkest songs, which take place in the furthest depths of depression, are written as a knowing afterthought. They come across as the musings of a man who has been through his worst and come out a wiser, happier and (damn it) better man. Clear Heart, Full Eyes is Finn’s solo project spent away from The Hold Steady. But let there be no doubt; this is an album that theoretically could sit quite comfortably in their discography.

It’s not to say that Clear Heart, Full Eyes isn’t a stand-out release. The album, more than anything, feels like a sub-section of The Hold Steady: at once clearly separate, but owing much of its tone and overall feeling to Finn’s main band. The overall sound of the album leans in a slightly more blues/country direction than Finn’s previous work, and certain songs certainly feel like they’d be out of place on a Hold Steady album. “New Friend Jesus,” for instance, plays out sounding a little like ‘my first country song.’ It seems like an experiment that Finn felt comfortable enough to release on his own, but not enough to attach the Hold Steady name to it. It’s uninventive, cliché and predictable but, at the same time, the song works because it’s earnest. It doesn’t feel like a song that was shoehorned in or a weak effort on Finn’s part. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one of the album’s weakest tracks, but at the same time there’s nothing forced, obvious or unpleasant about it. Despite everything it is and isn’t, it still comes across as a song that’s really hard to dislike.

The great appeal of the album, though, is obviously Finn himself and his unmistakable presence. For instance – and I don’t want to ruin it – it’s impossible not to love how he plays off the goof at the beginning of “Not Much Left of Us,” the album’s closing track. He really is one of the few frontmen working today who is so inherently likeable and magnetic that I’d be more than willing to just listen to the man release a spoken word album (not that it’s that far off from what he does anyway). As with all of Finn’s previous releases, when the man names names, I’m never sure whether he’s recalling actual people and events or if it’s just part of the rich tapestry of characters and plots he has invented over the years. All the same, that makes me want to listen more carefully.

This takes me back to the lyrics. There are single lines on the album that are so totally perfect I audibly laughed when I heard a number of them for the fist time. About 50% of the rest elicited at least a smile. At other times, specifically on the third song on the record, “No Future,” I’ll admit the smile accompanied foggy eyes and an understanding nod. It isn’t all an ubiquitous emotional statement though. As almost all of Finn’s previous albums, Clear Heart, Full Eyes flirts with the concept of religion, most notably (and intelligently) on the recently released single, “Honolulu Blues.” But when Finn asserts that you can’t “bring Jesus to the jungle,” and that “all those hymns you love,” only work because “you learned them as a kid and they make perfect sense to you,” he does so being backed by an upbeat, delirious and cheery guitar riff. Craig Finn understands how to speak his mind while avoiding being branded with that most terrifying of labels: preachy. The words make so much sense and are delivered so earnestly it’s hard not to recite them along with Finn once learned (this rings most true for the closing lines of “Jackson”).

From the cool opening (“Apollo Baby” may be one of the best opening songs of Finn’s career) to the downplayed, personal finale, Clear Heart, Full Eyes is a fun, outward-looking treat. Upon first listening, I can understand some confusion, or perhaps even being underwhelmed by Clear Heart, Full Eyes. Initially, the album can just seem like Hold Steady light. But the fact is, as always, Finn has brought the songwriting prowess and the sincerity he’s known for, and after several listens I’m hard-pressed to name a single song that hasn’t rubbed off on me.