You know how every Hold Steady song begins with frontman Craig Finn telling a story over slowly building guitar riffs, with Finn not even singing but preaching, teasing you in before the band explodes into an epic, upbeat, sing-along hook? Now imagine those songs minus the epic explosion. That’s Finn’s solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes in a nutshell.
As usual, Finn’s songs are filled with detailed stories of lost loves and new ones, depressing trips to bars, and the mixture of optimistic hope and pessimistic despair found throughout The Hold Steady’s catalog. So if you’re looking to listen to some great stories, you’re in luck. But many other artists, including Finn himself, have crafted great albums that combine masterful storytelling with excellent music to accompany the words.
Lost in the mix on Clear Heart Full Eyes is any sense of musical ambition or scope. Instead, the album plays out like a series of spoken word poems, told over repetitive twangy southern guitars in the same monotone, congested voice Finn’s always had.
Choruses are lazy or nonexistent (in “Jackson,” the “chorus” just sounds like another two lines of the song), instrumentation is minimal throughout (opener “Apollo Bay” has a long, droning whine that builds to nowhere), and Finn almost never attempts to diverge from his low-register, speaking voice.
The album has its moments – the spirited, rambling drums in “When No One’s Watching” best compliment the storytelling of Finn, as he tells of a man who is “living off of lies to lonely women,” but talks about himself as a hero. “New Friend Jesus” has one of the album’s best melodies and a free-wheeling country feel, with plenty of good-natured humor – the song, true to its title, finds Finn making new friends with a certain messiah: “Everybody is saying that the lights don’t shine, but the lights shine down on me, got a new friend and my new friend’s name is Jesus.” As always, the story is regretful and reflective: “I wish I was with Jesus when you met me,” Finn sings.
While the song’s narrative is cute, Finn’s technique can become tiresome – “New Friend Jesus” comes right after “No Future,” which closes with a personification of the devil: “The devil is a person, I met him at the Riverside Perkins.” A listener can only take so many stories of regret, lonely trips to bars, and personifications of religious figures – that is, unless they are accompanied with spirited musical arrangements, which Clear Heart Full Eyes is lacking.
Three minutes and eleven seconds into “Terrified Eyes,” another one of the album’s better songs, the faintest hint of a piano trickles in, wonderfully rolling alongside Finn’s voice as the song builds to a close: “In the middle of the day, she mostly feels okay, but when nighttime comes, she just feels terrified.” The piano fades back out just as quickly as it faded in, and the twangy guitars take over again. For that moment, the listener is briefly reminded of the magical music Finn can make, music that melds together the emotional lyrics and stories found all over this album with the beautiful chords, melodies, and arrangements that aren’t.