2.5 stars (out of 4)
“My head was really hurting,” Craig Finn says by way of introduction to his first solo album. “Clear Heart Full Eyes” (Vagrant) sounds like one long hangover – an album in which the morning-after mood and sharply observed storytelling trump music.
Finn’s stories play like celebrations in his more celebrated rock band, The Hold Steady. With his rock ‘n’ roll comrades, Finn folds his sing-speak vocals inside big arena-chords and songs about hopeful-in-spite-of-it-all characters. Most of the protagonists in Hold Steady songs appear younger than the ones he writes about on his solo album. They encounter disappointments, flirt with tragedy, but they’re imbued with desperate hope.
On “Clear Heart Full Eyes,” the characters are older, their lives more circumscribed. They’re mostly middle-age guys past their prime, living in rented rooms, alone with their record collections and dashed prospects. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Finn just turned 40 himself, and there’s probably a dash of what-might-have-been in these lyrics. But these songs don’t need subtext to resonate; these are well-written stories that just happen to be songs. Finn’s lyrics sound spontaneous, off-the-cuff, yet are exquisitely crafted. There’s even a sense of bleak humor, as when he concedes that “Good ol’ Freddy Mercury” is his lone adviser in “No Future,” and that Jesus is a lousy baseball player because “It’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands.”
The music, conjured by members of White Denim, the Heartless Bastards, Phosphorescent, and Centro-matic in a Texas studio, is the weak link. The backing musicians provide a neutral, often unobtrusive backdrop for Finn’s everyman voice and well-observed character studies. There are tinges of country twang, and plenty of guitar chords and pedal-steel whines that hang around and then slowly disintegrate. It all becomes a bit monotonous by album's end, but then hangovers are like that. The Hold Steady is all about bombast and getting bombed. “Clear Heart Full Eyes” is about the morning after, and everything’s a blur.
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