It’s interesting that Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn is largely credited with bringing Springsteen-chic back to the masses, considering the trajectory his career seems to be following; Finn’s first solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, is the singer/songwriter’s first stab at forging a career parallel to the band that turned him into the bespectacled street poet every indie kid wants to slug a beer with. And it’s an awful lot like Bruce’s E Street Band-less records: an able, if workaday, display of the songwriter’s inherent talent, an interesting departure, but curiously staid nonetheless.
See, there’s an exuberance to The Hold Steady’s best records; peaking with 2005-2008’s stellar run of records Separation Sunday, Boys and Girls in America, and Stay Positive, they’ve proven themselves the most exciting and intelligent bar-band in rock and roll, hammering familiar guitar lines and soul-stirring keyboard riffs into treatises on suburban ennui and wasted youth with a little spit-polish and some cutting beat poetry. And Finn, beyond the Kerouac aspirations, isn’t merely rock’s preeminent deconstructionist; he’s also it’s preeminent sociologist, humanist, and dew-eyed romantic. Back in 2006, he wrote “Chillout Tent”, a wistful, warts-and-all reminiscence of love’s brief spark ignited by a pair of overdoses at a music festival; in 2012, Finn still has the wordplay, and that wonderful, unconventional, rambling narrator’s voice, but Clear Heart Full Eyes is a bit short on the soul, the youthful spark that always laid at the core of every Hold Steady song.
But in all fairness, it must be noted that this is definitively not a Hold Steady album. (And if it is, it’s Heaven Is Whenever: short on setpieces, kind of downbeat, and long on pedal steel.) The pace is languid; the instrumentation, a little bit more country-fried than the sorts of ebullient, barn-burning instrumentals we’re used to hearing Finn’s poetry strung on. It’s a singer-songwriter album, not a rock band album. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and far be it from a mere critic to decry Finn for trying something a little bit left of his own center; still, in the pantheon of music at large, Finn’s left is everyone else’s right, and in sidestepping his own conventions, he lands squarely in rote alt-country land. Minor-key, pedal steel-heavy bookends “Apollo Bay” and “Not Much Left of Us” leave little to be excited about; these songs confuse vaguely Americana dust-bowl mannerisms for atmospheric contemplation, when that’s simply not the case.
If anything, Clear Heart Full Eyes‘s middle aptly delineates what sounds good on a Craig Finn solo record, and what simply doesn’t work. Rock largely works for Finn: “No Future” is the closest thing to that vintage Hold Steady sound, with a stellar melody reminiscent of Stay Positive‘s “Magazines” and lyrics that burst at the seams with references to its narrator’s rock n’ roll heroes, and “Honolulu Blues” is a spirited romp that harkens way back to old-school Springsteen, subliminally nicking structure and melodic cues from Bruce’s first-album deep cut “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?” Surprisingly, country and southern rock suit Finn well too: “New Friend Jesus” peels off one-liner after glorious one-liner over an infectious Cash-like shuffle, and “Terrified Eyes” sounds like caffeinated Allman Brothers in the best sort of way. What doesn’t work for Finn – and what, unfortunately, he relies on far too often here – is sparse, thorny, meandering instrumentation, and too much of Clear Heart Full Eyes finds itself ankle-deep in that rut. Because Finn doesn’t have a traditional singer-songwriter’s voice, his languid, unenthusiastic, dead-eyed songs lack the emotional connection that he could always establish with his primary band; when driven by forceful, melodic, chunky barroom rock, Finn excels as a frontman, a charismatic and enthusiastic storyteller who can sell you on anything. When the music slows to a snail’s pace and Finn intones without conviction, how could we possibly care? When THS slowed things down on midalbum ballads like “Citrus” or “Lord, I’m Discouraged”, it was a welcome respite from the escapist high of rock music; with the formula inverted, we’re left with a series of bright spots dotting a relatively desolate musical landscape, and quite frankly, it’s a bit oppressive.
Clear Heart Full Eyes remains listenable; even in his most listless moments, it’s difficult not to get drawn in by Finn’s prose, and when Finn cranks things up a little bit, he proves that he’s still able to make musical sparks fly. At the end of the day, Finn’s still got a viable solo career in his grasp if he wants it; Clear Heart Full Eyes works just fine as a trial run, but it could use some fine-tuning. A little less Neil Young, a little more Drive-By Truckers, please.