With his band, the Hold Steady, lead singer Craig Finn created five full-length albums, each with a full cast of characters. With the scene often set in Minneapolis (near where Finn was raised) these characters partied; they drank, dropped acid, danced and were crowned king and queen of their high school prom. Each song introduced us to characters, like Charlemagne and Sapphire, and to a world that, to me with my fairly PG-rated lifestyle, was kind of fascinating. But what happens when these rebel high school kids grow up? Once the whole rock and roll lifestyle stops seeming cool and starts having real effects? Finn catches up with a few of these characters later in life on his fantastic new album, Clear Heart Full Eyes.
While the Hold Steady's albums mixed styles varying from bar band to punk to Springsteen's "Rosalita"-influenced rock and roll, Finn's first solo project has mostly a glowing, alt-country feel with a few surprises thrown in here and there.
"It's less rock, a little more reserved," Finn said in a recent interview with Pitchfork. "I was paying attention to more traditional singers like Townes Van Zandt and the simplicity of words and melody."
And with this simplicity, Finn nails it.
The album kicks off not with the type of bang we'd expect from the Hold Steady frontman, but more with a dark rumbling. "Apollo Bay," the album's first track, has heavy guitars that drone and scream while Finn sings, "All my days stretch out before me/And my nights just go to hell." Not a super hopeful introduction, but a compelling one.
Songs like "No Future," "Terrified Eyes" and "Jackson" are all rich with characterization, the kind that typically develops after several chapters in a novel, not after just a few lines in a pop song. "Terrified Eyes" mixes an infectious, up-beat country melody with some incredibly dark lyrics that focus on domestic abuse. Written in typical Finn-fashion as a narrative, the song introduces us to Shannon and her abusive partner Sean. The song opens with the telling lines, "Sean says he can't sit here and tell her that it's really all so simple/Cause it's not simple, it's exhausting and confusing and it's scary and complex."
"Jackson," a song based around the title-character, the narrator and a girl named Stephanie, is another lyrically dark song that brings in themes of drugs and depression, and going "off the deep end." The song starts off musically sparse then grows into a beautiful, warm, pedal steel-heavy tune. Although, overall, it's a dark album, the music helps balance things out. It allows you to feel each of the character's stories, but in way that's a bit romanticized and safe.
The final track, "Not Much Left of Us," deepens the alt-country feel with more gorgeous, melancholy steel pedal and fiddle. "Honolulu Blues," the album's first single, doesn't really fit in at all. With its blues-rock beats, it takes on a very cool, Stone-y vibe. Themes of Christianity and religion come in too, particularly on the bouncy, ridiculous "New Friend Jesus" that features the lyrics, "Now people give me sideways looks when we set up on the strand/It's hard to suck with Jesus in your band."
Overall, this is a great album, without any tracks that I'd consider "skipable." It's a complete departure in some respects from his work with the Hold Steady, but when it comes to great characters, lyrics and catchy beats, Finn delivers.
This article was originally posted here.