Clear Heart Full Eyes
By Maura McAndrew | 7 February 2012
Clear Heart Full Eyes is probably not what die-hard Hold Steady fans would like it to be. Many would like frontman Craig Finn to get on with it already and produce the Boys and Girls in America (2006) redux; while I can’t say I wouldn’t like to hear that, the limp Heaven is Whenever (2010) implied it might be time for the band to move on, spread their wings, find freedom from the pressure of producing party anthems for the young and debauched. Impressively, that’s exactly what Finn manages to do on his first solo record. Like solo Springsteen before him (whose presence looms large in these songs), Finn has managed to tap into a quieter side of himself without sacrificing those things that made his band great: darkly comic poetry over satisfying, manic melodies.
Clear Heart Full Eyes begins a slower, less fist-pumping-ly than a typical Hold Steady record, but its first few tracks or so don’t deviate too far from Finn’s well-worn territory: bar-room rock, fucked-up characters, and Catholic imagery. It’s not really until the fifth (“Terrified Eyes”) that the record takes flight, and not until the ninth (“Rented Room”) that it stops looking back. “No Future,” with its occasionally caustic wit, is an early highlight, Finn sharpening his trademark wit: “The devil’s a person / I met him at the Riverside Perkins.” Following “New Friend Jesus” is the only song on the record that comes off as stale, much too joke-y and on the nose. But Finn branches out on “Terrified Eyes,” a neurotic-sounding country shuffle different from what he’s done before yet still effortless. Finn’s characters have grown older, their problems heavier, though they’ve not necessarily grown up: “When you come home from the hospital / We can’t go back to the Wagon Wheel,” he sings, “And if we do, we can’t go / Every night.” “Terrified Eyes” is a subtle turning point on Clear Heart Full Eyes that marks its slowly growing distance from all things booze-soaked. We’ve left the party before we even realize it.
Not in attendance are beloved Hold Steady characters like Holly, Charlemagne, and Gideon, or the Thunderbird and the Party Pit. No overpass parties or sinister riverside happenings, but hospital visits and broken relationships. Some of the new characters on Clear Heart Full Eyes remain nameless, and others, like the titular Jackson, Stephanie, Shannon, and the Springsteen-evoking Wendy, are more representations than full-fledged individuals. Finn’s talent still lies in the details, however, and if anything the songs on Clear Heart Full Eyes seem more personal and painful, more mature than the Bukowski-esque nightscapes of the Hold Steady’s canon. And though the record is not a cohesive collection of stories à la the great Separation Sunday (2005), Finn’s characters and places come to life as vividly as ever. The best example of this comes in the album’s finest song, “Balcony”: “That dude with the long fingernails / I think he’s gonna take such good care of you / I’ve seen him shave up at the library / I’ve seen him sleep behind the Caribou.” Finn’s characters might be transitory, but his protagonists are more grounded—we can detect our narrator’s bias, hear his sarcasm and his pain.
The final trio of the record’s songs is its strongest section, and together they function as the story of a break-up in three distinct stages: moving out, moving on, and the inevitable, destructive attempt to crawl back. There’s a disconnect between these songs and the rest of the album, sure, but Finn tells his story so succinctly and eloquently it’s hard to hold (heh) it against him. “Rented Room” is a less dramatic take on Springsteen’s “Downbound Train,” with Finn juxtaposing flashbacks of happy coupledom against his lonely new existence “above a saloon.” And the aforementioned “Balcony,” with its aching pedal steel bubbling up like a hot spring, finds Finn inhabiting a new sound beautifully, still with a sense of humor beneath the melancholy. “Not Much Left of Us” ends the album on more swooning pedal steel and a lived-in lushness, evoking one of the Hold Steady’s best songs in recent years, Stay Positive‘s (2008) bonus track “Cheyenne Sunrise.” I’m not one of those people who can’t stand Finn’s voice, and in my opinion he sounds great here, expressive and distinctive, treating his words carefully with the gravity they deserve. “The part that remains is rotten and bruised / A soft spot on a piece of fruit,” he sings. Then: “We’ll cut off the black and eat at the rest / That’s probably what we’re gonna do.” This is Finn at his most singer-songwriter-y, and the biggest surprise is how natural it sounds, as though he’d built his career on it on along.
Finn may not have given us the next great Hold Steady album, but he’s done something better in the long-run: he’s crafted a record that trades on his strengths while exploring new ground it was only inevitable he’d tread, a ground and a path perhaps more befitting a man of his age. Maybe Craig Finn is through with Holly and Gideon and all those fucked up kids, but he’s still got stories to tell. And with Clear Heart Full Eyes he’s established himself, tentatively, as a man apart from his band.