It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band.” ~ Craig Finn, “New Friend Jesus”

My ritual reaction to Hold Steady albums: I anticipate unmitigated fun; the record is actually released; I’m frustrated that it’s cheesy and too many lines are recycled Springsteen; I rant that if I wanted to hear Springsteen, I’d listen to Springsteen; I listen more and enjoy what’s there; I hate myself for being a snob; I go back to listening to Lucero.

In the lead-up to Craig Finn, captain of the Hold Steady’s, debut solo album, I let myself get equally excited. It represents a chance for him to say something to an audience with a different Bro Quotient (BQ), to express different influences, to express them more subtly, and to show us more of himself or his stories–which is what I think is best about Hold Steady. My great hope was that he would just use less words.

But lo! and behold, the first song of Clear Heart Full Eyes, Apollo Bay,” is a take-off of Neil Young’s “On the Beach.” I went through the ritual again and tried to appreciate the song before it was over. The rip-off mattered less when the next six songs proved full of pure Finn-ian beatitude. “When No One’s Watching” is a dastardly detective story, “New Friend Jesus” a hilarious side of Finn’s religious theme, “Terrified Eyes” is plain terrifying.

After listening to the whole album, I suppose the Neil Young summoning makes sense. Craig Finn and his nasally speak-singing have never had to stand on their own this much, without the backlit cacophony of his band. So, he calls on Neil Young  for a template. Neil Young, discouraged from singing in Buffalo Springfield because he “sang like a girl,” but went on to make slower, tenser, and louder albums than any other voice would’ve dared.

Craig Finn didn’t use less words. Springsteen reigned himself in after the first two albums, but Finn is fixed in the volume of Greetings and E-Street Shuffle. Even so, Clear Heart Full Eyes holds full doses of catharsis, beauty, resignation, and skewered comprehension–just as any Hold Steady album does. The keyboard trades for pedal steel, the drum sticks for paint brushes, but they’re all still Craig Finn’s songs. He can only write them one way, but it’s an effective way. He’ll always make me roll my eyes, but he’ll always convince me in the end. The song “Balcony” convinces me, and marks the album’s ascension.

Craig Finn – Balcony
Craig Finn – Terrified Eyes
Craig Finn – When No One’s Watching

Craig Finn’s Official Site, Craig Finn on Facebook, Craig Finn on Spotify, Buy CHFE on iTunes. On Amazon. Buy it on vinyl or CD from Vagrant Records. Craig Finn’s tumblr on the making of this album.

Author: Mike Ostrov

Mike Ostrov relays the history of popular song on message boards and under rocks.


    1. “Apollo Bay” and “On the Beach” are the exact same composition, very little variation between them.

      Besides that, all I really said was it made sense for a guy of Craig’s age with an “unconventional” voice to look back at someone Neil’s age with an “unconventional” voice for some clues. I can see traces of Neil Young’s mid-seventies albums On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night, songs like “Albequerque,” “Motion Pictures,” and again, “On the Beach.” But Neil Young obviously is never as wordy, so I kept the real comparison closer to Springsteen. But by the time Springsteen made anything as sparse-sounding as this album, he was already less verbose.

      There are many different kinds of Neil Young comparisons, and I think on this site, we’ve think of the default one as the guitar-shredding Neil Young. However, I think that in the scene we’re generally talking about, another Neil Young plays a larger role–the Neil Young from the albums I mentioned above, who has the balls (and is on the drugs) to play really, really slowly. Still loud, but way more tense. Crazy Horse could play both ways, too, they weren’t just shredders.

  1. The best three songs on the album are “Western Pier”, “Jackson”, and “No Future”. I’m surprised you didn’t link one of the three.

    1. You’re right, those are good songs. “Jackson”‘s just his normal cast-of-characters song schtick, though. “No Future” doesn’t sound far from a Hold Steady song, either. And “No Future”‘s got the Freddy Mercury and Johnny Lydon quotes and that’s what I was talking about with the cheesy shit that Craig and Frank Turner constantly include that makes me roll my eyes. “One thing’s for certain, the devil’s a person” — good line.

      I tried to include songs that showed a the variety of the album. Also, the best songs. “Balcony” is the best one.

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