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Review: Craig Finn, ‘Clear Heart Full Eyes’

Guests attend as Chrysler presents The Hold Steady powered By Pandora at The Space at Westbury on November 19, 2014 in Westbury City, New York. (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Pandora Media)
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: January 24, 2012
Label: Vagrant

You can only cheerfully bark the refrain “Gonna walk around / Gonna walk around / Gonna walk around and drink” so long before your feet get tired, your poor liver gives out, and the rest of the kids at the party wander off and get jobs and stop being, well, kids. Which is the point at which Craig Finn’s career truly started.

Over five exhilarating albums as the thirtysomething toga-party-preacher frontman for Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis classic-rock poets laureate the Hold Steady (plus three earlier, even seedier & surlier efforts with Minneapolis’ Lifter Puller), Finn has riffed and raged and enraptured, an erudite torrent of carnality and Catholicism combining the cheap, intoxicating thrill of a keg stand with the fervor of the Sermon on the Mount. The Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy made (mild-mannered, bespectacled) flesh. And now, the earnest but tepid Clear Heart Full Eyes, which as a solo album makes an excellent argument for sticking with your apostles.

The still-active Hold Steady have slowly, elegantly mellowed, it’s true. The thrilling roar of their brain-of-Springsteen, brawn-of-Meatloaf barstool rock has been tamped down gradually by soft balladry and an exquisite weariness they’d hinted at from the very beginning. (“Killer parties almost killed me,” went the thesis of their 2004 debut.) But they still have guitarist and semi-secret weapon Tad Kubler and his occasional bursts of Zeppelin-via-Replacements bombast to prevent total atrophy. Left to Finn’s own devices, Full Eyes flirts with flat-lining entirely. “I only died on the inside,” he announces in his inimitable half-sung, half-declaimed yap on “No Future,” his Austin, Texas pickup band ambling through one of the peppier, punkier numbers on an album dominated by folk, alt-country, blues, and soft-rock fuzziness that serves only to blunt his typically sharp lyricism — conviction, but little catharsis.

The half-shuffling, half-trudging “Apollo Bay” sets the tone, slow and solemn, as if the Hold Steady’s unapologetic anthemia had been replaced by atmospheric Gothic folk, with an arty, Marc Ribot-esque distortion-as-abstract-expressionism guitar solo ripping through it, but not quite jolting it to life. “When No One’s Watching” keeps the raging guitar and begins to liven up, with rumbling upright bass goading Finn along as he lambastes some dimestore lothario, “A weak man living off of weaker women.” Our host still remains absurdly quotable, dashing off wizened one-liners that carry you through even the record’s dullest moments. The hazy, punchless blues-rock of “Jackson” is briefly brightened by the occasional bon mot: “Stephanie was long on looks and short on mental health.”

You can pleasantly while away Full Eyes just luxuriating in Finn’s long-codified tics. Count the name-drops (Freddie Mercury and Johnny Rotten on “No Future,” Joan Didion and Graham Greene on “Honolulu Blues”). Take a shot every time he mentions Jesus (and prepare to get just obliterated). Spot a few recurring lyrical motifs (“the back half of the theater”). The best moments here explicitly evoke old Hold Steady tourmates Drive-By Truckers, the gold standard for novelistic Americana: “New Friend Jesus” is a pristinely goofy, Mike Cooley sorta tune, acoustic-driven and spry and boasting all of Finn’s best lines: “It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band” takes the crown, only to have it immediately snatched away by “People say we suck at sports, but they don’t understand / It’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands.”

“Terrified Eyes” generates a similar peaceful easy feeling, but the only other genuine highlight here is “Rented Room,” a harrowing, funereal, lovelorn dirge, basically an archetypal lonely-guy breakup song imbued with genuine beauty and pathos. Sing/declaim/yap along: “Playin’ records in a rented room / Hotter than Hell into Bark at the Moon / Certain things they get really hard to do / When you’re living in a rented room.” Those lines nicely encapsulate Finn’s immense appeal: the wry specificity of the album titles and the even wryer non-specificity of “certain things.”

That’s the song here most likely to get scratched into your soul, but we stumble to a close with “Balcony” and “Not Much Left of Us,” two half-hearted attempts to evoke that same transcendent glumness that just come off as merely glum. At its best and/or weirdest, Clear Heart Full Eyes reaches for a Tom Waits sort of sublime seediness, (mercifully) drained of all the psycho-carnival-barker shit. But as an attempt at the autumnal grandeur of Waits’ Mule Variations, it has far too few variations. Sing about boxed-in barhounds too long and you risk becoming one yourself.