With his first solo effort, ‘Clear Heart Full Eyes,’ the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn enters his third act

Craig Finn plays Mercury Lounge tonight and Maxwell's tomorrow ()
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Call Clear Heart Full Eyes the start of Craig Finn’s third chapter.

Over the first two, with the legendary-in-Minneapolis band Lifter Puller and then Brooklyn’s lauded act, The Hold Steady, Finn (who plays tonight at Mercury Lounge and tomorrow at Maxwell’s) built distinct bodies of work while refining his voice, both the physical and the writerly. Like his idol Bruce Springsteen, over time Finn has shaved off his early excesses, however thrilling those were.

Finn’s new solo album doesn’t swagger like The Hold Steady; it’s laid back, country-ish in places, and more deliberately studio-atmospheric. In some ways it’s closer to the quiet parts of last year’s Hold Steady effort, Heaven Is Whenever, but that album dragged in a way Clear Heart Full Eyes doesn’t.

Which is funny, because this is the most inward record Finn has made in any incarnation. Typically, his lyrical tendency is to expand—to pile on plot as well as detail. “Balcony” takes place in typically seedy Finn terrain—a breakup at someone else’s high-rise soiree—but it’s written almost serenely, an effect embellished by airy steel guitar, and there’s a conscious turning away from overindulgent story-spinning: “Took the bus back uptown ’cause I knew that it was over / I didn’t need to know the rest of it.” The sort of raucous parties and crowded bars that drive the narratives of so many Hold Steady songs are similarly in the periphery throughout.

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“Being alone was a huge thing about this record,” Finn said when we spoke a few weeks ago. “The opening track, 'Apollo Bay,' is about being in Australia last year for a tour. Everyone went home and I stayed by myself and rented a car. Driving alone in Australia, you can get really alone really quick."

Here he laughed.

"There was a solitary and solitude thing that informed the whole record,” he said.

That’s a contrast with The Hold Steady, whose songs are always overcrowded, and largely about being social at all costs.

“The Hold Steady’s very celebratory,” Finn said. “We go out and have a good time. That’s what I love about The Hold Steady; one of the really exciting things about my life is I get to do that. There are moments of the day when I don’t feel celebratory. The backing music’s quieter. There’s a lot more space. That way, I think I was allowed to do something a little more intimate and maybe concerned with more mundane topics. When you think about the song ‘Rented Room,’ no one’s getting shot, no one’s falling off a roof. It’s just a guy sitting in a rented room trying to figure out how he got to this place in his life. When you think of short stories—I usually think of [Raymond] Carver, who wrote all these short stories where you could argue that nothing ever happens, but a lot happens.”

Finn also escaped the fate of many solo albums, where the artists sound like they’ve hired  a hodge-podge of different people to do anything to not sound like their main band.

“‘Solo record,’ when it comes out of your mouth . . . I’m a music fan too, and it’s like, ‘Ahhh!’” he said, as he made a recoiling gesture.

Maybe more than anything, Clear Heart Full Eyes shows off Finn as a songwriter, full stop, someone whose work has the potential to be adaptable into a number of shapes—as opposed to the guy who writes songs for a band. (Which, rest assured, he still does: Finn’s album announcement ended with the likelihood that a new Hold Steady album will appear later in the year.)

 Craig Finn - Clear Hearts Full Eyes (Preview) by Vagrant Records

It might be a hoot to hear someone with as much character as Finn take on his older songs—“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” by Carolyn Mark? I wish—it’s not as likely to happen as it could with Clear Heart’s obvious hit. “New Friend Jesus” is straight-up country, and one of Finn’s finest—a big, heartfelt joke of a song (“It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band”) that could catch on big-time if, since we’re wishing, Brad Paisley were to grab it (and play guitar all over it). “When No One’s Watching,” a straight-on character study of a predatory stud—“The wreckage that you left in the places that you slept / Moving through the bars and slowly stalking / Someone you can use that finds you charming / The story that our hero keeps well hidden / A weak man living off of weaker women”—has directed my mind’s ear, at separate times, to both Willie Nelson and Marianne Faithfull.

With what he refers to as “sparse skeletons of songs,” augmented by what he calls “cowboy chords—they were really open,” Finn chose to work with Mike McCarthy in Austin, Tex. (The album’s title comes from “Friday Night Lights,” which is set there—it's a clever inversion of the football team's psych-up chant.)

“I was like, ‘You’re going to produce this thing,’” said Finn. “Meaning, ‘What I have is minimal. We can talk about what I hear in my head and we can talk about what you hear in your head.’ He said a really good thing: ‘If you can sing the song over the phone to me, you’ve got a song, and the rest becomes my problem as a producer,’ which gave me a lot of confidence.”

McCarthy also works with Spoon, whose crafty use of the studio is as central to their records’ success as the songwriting. While The Hold Steady’s records have grown more “produced,” other than a couple of Lifter Puller tracks and some unreleased songs made as Brokerdealer with a beat-making collaborator, Finn’s never really made a full-on “studio record” before. Some of the songs have a loose band feel—“New Friend Jesus” is loosest. But a number—the beginning of opener “Apollo Bay,” framing a dry snare beat, or the dolorous slide guitar that blankets “Western Pier”—are anchored by steel guitars so smoky-atmospheric they give the record a soundscape-like cast. As much as the differentiation in lyrical tone, those touches—performed by folks from a number of Austin bands (Centro-Matic, the Heartless Bastards, Phosphorescent, White Denim)—help Clear Heart Full Eyes sound like its own branch of Finn’s work.

Since the album’s title came from “Friday Night Lights,” I figured I’d ask Finn about TV. He got turned on to “Lights” on a flight—either JetBlue or Virgin, he said. He watches giant-arc dramas on DVD while on tour: “I like to crush through a series in three days. I’ve kind of run out of them. I like comedies a lot—'Parks and Recreation,' '30 Rock,' and all that—but it’s not drama, [where] I need to know what happens.”

One thing Finn has said he finds appealing about “Lights” is its same-town-different-characters aspect. Does he think that might hold true for his own songs as well?

“One place it relates is that there’s this whole staying-or-going-away thing. It happens to everyone. Growing up in Minneapolis, or being in Minneapolis in my 20s, I remember all everyone talked about was moving. Some of those people were never going to, you know what I mean? There was always this, ‘I’m going to move to Portland. I’m going to move to L.A.’ And you know, for a Midwesterner, that’s very understandable territory. [On] “Friday Night Lights,” staying or going, getting out or coming back—that spoke to me.”