It’s no secret that Friday Night Lights was a big influence on Craig Finn when he recorded his first solo record, Clear Heart Full Eyes (just look at the playfully inverted title). But while both TV series and album plant their roots firmly in the state of Texas, the similarities end there. You’re more likely to experience the emotional wallop of the show while listening to Finn’s most famous creative venture, The Hold Steady. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s unfair to compare a frontman’s solo album to the songs of his already established band, but at the end of the day, one of these outlets strongly suits Finn’s distinctive vocal and songwriting style while the other doesn’t.
Clear Heart Full Eyes sees Finn placing his usual rogues gallery of charismatic losers, drug dealers, and revelers in a more rustic setting creaking with slide guitar, caterwauling banjo, and ghostly acoustics. Having since left the city, the players are older (Finn regular, the skinhead Gideon, makes an especially depressing appearance), the party’s over, and most of them are now alone, left to deal with their past mistakes when confronted by ominous, sometimes biblical figures. The aging, entropic direction of his once celebratory yet conflicted religious characters is something Finn began to explore on more downbeat tracks like “First Night” off of 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, and here it becomes the crux of the album.
Christ himself plays the central role in “New Friend Jesus”, one of the record’s stronger tracks, where the messiah meets Finn in a parking lot, joins his band, helps him pay his bills, but provides no help when playing sports (“it’s hard to catch with holes in your hands”). Finn skirts his signature talk-singing for a more straightforward delivery, and while the narratives themselves are as resonant as ever and full of the aforementioned lyrical zingers (“When No One’s Watching” and “Terrified Eyes” are also standouts), it feels like he’s holding back vocally. The overall tone ends up sounding unsure and disconnected as opposed to ominous or foreboding. Granted, Finn’s current songs are slower and more meditative than his past work, but that didn’t stop the similarly paced and themed “Both Crosses” (off of 2008’s Stay Positive) from packing a heavy dose of creepy catharsis. As much as Finn may have tried to avoid replicating The Hold Steady, many of these tracks would have made perfectly good Hold Steady songs, and you can’t help but wonder what they’d sound like if he was singing them as his usual self.
Having a rotating lineup of musicians from Texas stalwarts such as Heartless Bastards, White Denim, and Phosphorescent doesn’t help either. The Hold Steady has always adapted to Finn’s constantly morphing details, infusing down-in-the-dumps cuts like “Lord, I’m Discouraged” with varied instrumentation that elevated the soundscape as much as it anchored it. Here, the twang plods along with stellar musicianship, but no personality, causing lyrically compelling cuts “Apollo Bay” and “Jackson” to feel like the singer and band are in different rooms. On Clear Heart Full Eyes, Finn brings the stories (he always brings the stories), but as a whole, the album sounds atypically half-hearted.
Essential Tracks: “New Friend Jesus”, “When No One’s Watching”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.