Your first exposure to alt rock outfit The Hold Steady has become a rite of passage for my generation's indie loving youth. For college kids who received our modern musical education on the post-rock landmarks of Kid A or Merriweather Post Pavillion, hearing a band that was nothing more than straight-forward, in your face rock and roll was something akin to a revelation. Whether it was the classic rock of Separation Sunday or the "three chords and the truth" feel of Boys and Girls in America, listeners knew they were hearing one of the best pure rocks bands left in the country. Much of the success of The Hold Steady can be attributed to a combination of their melodic and hook-driven instrumentation combined with lead singer Craig Finn's literary and dense lyricism. When it was announced that Craig Finn was releasing a solo record, expectations were reasonably high, and while Clear Heart Full Eyes may not live up to the expectations set for it by Finn's work with The Hold Steady, it still serves as a reminder that Craig Finn remains one of the great storytellers in modern indie rock.
Often artists will release solo records that just seem like "lite" versions of their bands material-- where the only reasons you know you aren't listening to a subpar addition to their discography are the liner notes that leave everyone else in the band out. Clear Heart Full Eyes doesn't have this problem, as Craig Finn desperately distances himself from the riff heavy and melodic rock of The Hold Steady. Instead you get a spattering of songs with some heavy blues and jazz influences (which are among the most interesting of the album) alongside Craig Finn's full-hearted exploration of alt-country influences, most notably Wilco's masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, though unfortunately Finn isn't quite able to deliver the same visceral emotional impact.
With a focus on atmospheric and simple instrumentation, Finn places all of his hope in his songwriting which proves to be a mixed bag. Finn remains an expert at narrative storytelling with cultural references abound and interlocking stories and characters that span the whole album. However, his traditional method of eschewing traditional song structure lyrically means the complete lack of hooks present whether this be a rousing chorus or an instantly loveable riff causes the album to lose anything resembling a defining, unifying moment. It's most memorable track, "New Friend Jesus," seems completely out of place on the LP, and its sing-along nature could have been used on a more central number. The album gives you glimmers of Craig Finn preparing to let his hair down and let loose with some old-school rockage, most notably on "Jackson" and "Apollo Bay" but those moments are too few and far between.
Craig Finn's song-writing acumen needs a soulful sound to back it up. These aren't Will Oldham ballads of symbolic imagery. It's Springsteen-ian stories of real life, and without his backing band members, Craig Finn simply doesn't feel whole. That's not to say that this is a bad or even sloppy album. Craig Finn is as intelligent and passionate as he's ever been. He simply took a musical risk, and the emotional pay off of the album simply isn't as much as it would have been had he stuck more closely to the areas we know he can do so well. Yet, all grievances aside, for all fans of The Hold Steady, Clear Heart Full Eyes is a can't miss album to continue exploring the sonic evolution of your favorite indie rockers.