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Finn’s solo venture showcases Americana

Courtney Eckerle | Wednesday, February 1, 2012


“Good old Freddy Mercury’s the only guy who advises me,” The Hold Steady front man Craig Finn belts on his first solo venture, “Clear Heart Full Eyes,” in true cool-guy fashion. Really, invoking the name of Freddy in a song is second only to well … God, and this album sees Finn doing that too. Rock idolatry and religion, all in one album. Let the smiting and lightning strikes begin. 

The Hold Steady is currently working on their sixth album, but fans shouldn’t worry; this solo debut is not a sign of the dreaded band-pocalypse breakup. In other words, no need for a Destiny’s Child-era flashback.

The album was recorded in Austin, Texas, with Spoon’s producer Mike McCarthy. Use local musicians and add in a nod to television show “Friday Night Lights” (a clever switch up of its mantra, “Clear Eyes Full Hearts Can’t Lose”), and you have a rock and roll front man in Finn who is seriously dipping his toe into the Americana pool. 

Lighter musically but lyrically darker than the usual Hold Steady fare (see the band’s 2008 album “Stay Positive”), most of the tracks reflect the yin and yang otherwise known as the human condition. Dynamically narrative, “Jackson” talks about depression, and “No Future” references the Sex Pistols both in title and with the lyrics, “The best advice I’ve ever gotten/was from good old Johnny Rotten/he said God save the Queen/he said, no future for you/no future for me.”

The Americana flair emerges again in the emotionally taut, “When No One’s Watching,” which tells a tale about telling tales, something any Texan would heartily get behind.  

“There’s somethin’ in how well you tell the story/The way you overcame the odds all stacked against you/The way that you prevailed in the face of greater danger/The way at first that they misunderstood you … That’s the pieces come together that’s these things I keep hearing, about the hero that you are when no one’s watching.”

Another bit of the Texas element that comes out in the album is when Finn, in true Hold Steady style, mentions “The Wagon Wheel” in more than one song. The band commonly encourages the interaction of people and places across songs and albums. Also, the description sounds like a place that would have great barbecue.

Finn is a rarity in the rock world. He is openly Catholic (he gives up drinking every year for Lent) and is an avid sports fan, although only one side of his personality is reflected in this album. “Clear Heart Full Eyes” often weaves religion throughout, a common thread that continues through all of his tracks, although Finn certainly isn’t peddling any message, just his thoughts. 

“New Friend Jesus” is a perfect example with its gospel-like romping, guitar-picking opus of love gone wrong because the redemption of one person comes too late. Finn comically croons, “I wish I was with Jesus when I met you … You’d give yourself right up to me.” He continues, “It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band,” a clear reference to the Notre Dame marching band. 

In “Western Pier,” Finn characterizes Jesus as a judge: “He is kind, and he’s just.” But it isn’t all happy-go-lucky religious handholding. There’s real doubt and pondering in his lyrics. In “Honolulu Blues,” he laments, “All those hymns you learn as a kid and they make perfect sense to you,” and “you’ve got to think that maybe Jesus isn’t getting through.”

However, the lyrics conclude, “We’re all good, we’re all bad, we’re euphoric and we’re sad,” reflecting this up and down, light and dark, saints and sinners (mostly sinners) album. As with any good solo venture, Finn’s core fans will feel at home, while at the same time new fans will be welcomed in this Americana infusion.