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New Music: Craig Finn’s Solo Debut Sounds More Like The Hold Steady Than I Expected

January 23, 2012

Listen to Clear Heart Full Eyes at NPR

It had been a while since I spent a lot of time with a record from The Hold Steady, but all it took was hearing the beginning of “First Night” on an old playlist and making the active choice not to skip to the next song as I might usually do. It led to an afternoon listening to Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America. This began the sort of “perfect storm” that led to the abrupt change from a slight curiosity to an eager willingness to hear Craig Finn’s solo debut Clear Heart Full Eyes.

Much of the internet ink spilled on this record will emphasize this as a “departure” for Finn when compared to the anthemic mode The Hold Steady usually uses. The NPR post above calls it a “lyrics record,” and Finn mentioned in a recent interview that this new process let him shade in his characters in darker hues with less redemptive endings. It’s slightly misleading when considering the high percentage of reviews that called The Hold Steady’s five records “literary.” Even the album’s sonic changes aren’t completely out of left field. Finn plays with a collection of new musicians, but the sound isn’t completely unexpected. In fact, after reading some of the interviews and hearing the twangy “New Friend Jesus” from the record, I expected this to be Finn’s “singer-songwriter” album. Instead, I happily found Clear Heart Full Eyes more sonically diverse in the way that I wanted the last Hold Steady album to sound. I’ve only listened once and haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about all of the characters and their doings (or all of the allusions to THS songs, another stylistic touch I wasn’t expecting on a solo record), but it doesn’t seem like the grand departure I imagined while reading about it. Finn may stretch himself as a songwriter, but it’s in a natural way. Sometimes, songwriters feel like gigantic, sweeping changes are necessary for growth. For a songwriter who treats songs like stories, it’s fitting that the changes take time to unfold naturally.

It may sound like a copout or a backhanded compliment, but Clear Heart Full Eyes will likely find an audience with the same folks who liked Finn’s main band. I mean this as a compliment, however; having listened to my two favorite Hold Steady records recently, Clear Heart Full Eyes belongs in the same discography and may even be more essential than the band’s last couple of full-lengths.

Craig Finn and his backing band come to Great Scott in Allston on February 28th, and I’m excited to hear some of these songs in a place barely large enough for The Hold Steady to rehearse, let alone perform.


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