For most Hold Steady fans, the appeal of the band lies in front man Craig Finn’s almost spoken words tales of middle America. What happens then, if you strip away the rock and get just Craig Finn? Clear Heart, Full Eyes, his first solo album, is the answer to that question. A songbook of basically the same kind of stories as told by Hold Steady but with less riffs and solos. It’s a chance for Finn to experiment and be a little calmer.
There are, of course, still guitars and drums but they play a backseat roll for the most part. Only opener ‘Apollo Bay’ has any kind of noisy solo. The pacing and variety is little lacking which might disappoint those who love the bar room rock sound which usually accompanies Finn. In comparison, this album is painted with beige neutrality.
So, to the lyrics then. Religion? Check. Drugs? Check. Drinking? Check. Broken lives? Check. If you’ve never heard a single Hold Steady song then this album might be a revelation of personal American tales. Those of us on the other side of the fence might find it a little less engaging. Not because the stories aren’t strong, however; dialogue has always been an advantage of Finn’s. ‘Terrified Eyes’ plays out a story of a man and woman locked in depression with one another: “I wish that you could try and love yourself the same way that you love me”. Meanwhile ‘Western Pier’ details the after-effects of a crime: “They rolled up, they put the cuffs on me, and drove me deep into the valley”.
The rhyming scheme employed through most of these songs should be tired and flat by the end of the album but somehow the classic Finn delivery makes it stand up throughout. The closing track, ‘Balcony’, is one of the best, in fact, telling the story of a man seeing his old partner with a new lover. The small, curious things are what demonstrate Finn’s genuine heart: “The dude with long finger nails, I think he’s gonna take such good care of you.”
For fans of excellent storytelling, Clear Heart, Full Eyes offers what it promises in its Friday Night Lights juxtaposed title. The rest, though, is pretty standard, with nothing to keep you going but the comfort of a familiar voice.