Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes

Since 1994, Craig Finn has been writing heartfelt stories about boys and girls in America, from his days with post-punk band Lifter Puller to the bar-band rock’n’roll of The Hold Steady, each time creating a familiar but new world of tragic and romantic more-anti-than-hero anti-heroes lit by the golden glow reflected through a beer glass. This is Finn’s America, and unlike Didion’s New York and Springsteen’s New Jersey, he shuns the coast and largely reflects on the character of the Midwest. Clear Heart Full Eyes was recorded at The Mansion in Austin, Texas, during a five-month break from playing with The Hold Steady, and that Texan flavour definitely comes through. There’s not a homiletic organ sound to be found and the electric guitars have largely been substituted at the forefront by a steel acoustic; a little less Born to Run, a little more born to ride.
It’s worth mentioning the name which comes from an alteration of the phrase “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” the mantra of the fictional football team, the Dillon Panthers, from cult-hit TV series Friday Night Lights, also set in Texas. In the words of New York critic Daniel Kolitz, “Football was their religion, but religion was also their religion, and to watch the Panthers pray—publicly, sincerely—before winning the big game in the last thirty seconds, to watch large groups of people passionately and unironically give themselves up to something larger than themselves, was for me its own form of religion. For forty-four minutes at a time I could get in touch with an inner-self uncorrupted by The Onion and Seinfeld and winking Pavement songs.” You don’t have to be religious in the traditional sense to appreciate an expression of such sincerity and it’s that sincerity that’s been the guiding principle of Craig Finn’s songwriting for a long time. A reference to something else which evoked that same guiding principle is therefore the most apt thing he could’ve titled his first solo album.
The exception to all the album’s Americana undercurrent is surprisingly found on the opening track, “Apollo Bay”, which he wrote after coming to Victoria. “Vietnamese and six or seven VB’s / All my days stretch out before me,” he sings while looking out at the Twelve Apostles, the geological embodiment of one of the central themes of his music-writing career. It’s no wonder they appealed to him: the crumbling and withered rocks, named after Jesus’s twelve most devout followers, formerly icons of knowledge and learning which, in an increasingly religiously iconoclastic world, had decayed into nothing more than a tourist attraction, is a potently pessimistic metaphor for an aging pub-rocker wondering about his relevance. “There’s always people taking pictures.” From there, the album begins to introduce others, with Finn’s narrator occasionally joining their misadventures. Finn’s never hesitated to outline in empathetic detail the turbulent experiences of his characters and the effects of their wretched emotional state, but this time he takes a closer look at their internal symptoms. On “Jackson” he covers Jackson and Stephanie, an actor and a girlfriend of Finn’s narrator respectively, dealing with depression and anxiety until it concludes with Jackson’s suicide. “She said ‘Depression is an ocean and it’s prone to tides and swells / Anxiety’s persistent, it’s an ambitious politician / It keeps knocking at your door / Until you come and let it in / I think that Jackson let it in.'” The closest it comes to sounding like The Hold Steady is immediately heard in the buzzy, Kubler-esque guitar on “No Future”, which Finn admitted in an interview was originally written quieter until the backing band got ahold of it. The track references staples of the other band like crucifixion, meeting the devil by the river and the influence of punk legends like Johnny Rotten – even the title is a reference to the punk ideology.
Rather than a sprawling, cohesive narrative like the stories featured on earlier Hold Steady records, those featured on Clear Heart Full Eyes are limited to the song in which they were created, providing doleful vignettes of Finn’s America, more a saga of the culture and landscape than a specific group of characters. He’s also moved gradually away from writing about hard and fast lifestyles, away from kids who look no further than 27, and onto people suffering for their ambition and displacement rather than their drug habit. Regardless, it doesn’t sound especially sorrowful, it sounds expertly contemplative, the culmination of decades of going wrong and then trying to explain how and why.
by Jake Cleland

February 1st 2012
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