“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.