The Hold Steady frontman unveils debut solo album.
Ian Winwood 2012
Craig Finn describes himself as the kind of writer who sits in the back seat of the car driven by his characters, taking notes. For the sake of his sanity and general health, this is doubtless a good thing. On Lord, I’m Discouraged, a song from The Hold Steady’s 2008 album Stay Positive, the Minnesota-born resident of Brooklyn profiles an unrequited love whose life is sliding into the despair of drug addiction. "The sutures and bruises are none of my business / She says that she’s sick but won’t get specific," he sings, later adding: "I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine / So I mostly just pray she don’t die."
To say that Finn is a lyricist of uncommon humanity, not to mention one possessed of a fine attention to detail, is to understate the case. On Clear Heart Full Eyes, he shrouds his tales of foolish people lost on long wanderings on the inexpensive side of the tracks with music that is less dense than that offered by The Hold Steady. That band has been described by American Psycho author and alt-punk expert Bret Easton Ellis as being the finest group in the United States; their sound is a tough one to better. Fans of the group will identify with Finn’s solo flight in no small part due to the distinctive treble-heavy voice and narrative style, but songs such as the sparse Apollo Bay – which sees the narrator drunk on similarly treble-heavy Victoria Bitter in Australia – and the gentle Not Much Left of Us offer something different from the author’s usual work.
But as fine as the music on offer here happens to be – and often it’s very fine indeed – it is Finn’s sense of humanity in lyrical form that really sets this album apart. "From the way you picked up the phone, I could tell you weren’t going to die / February is as long as it is wide," is the opening sentiment of No Future, and an early contender for couplet of the year. Elsewhere figures as diverse as Freddie Mercury and John Lydon are thrown into the mix, characters listen to Ozzy Osbourne and KISS in studio apartments, as well as a whole host of city-dwellers whose lives are led on the serrated edge that separates good people from bad. It is these people, and the fact that their creator has sufficient skill to humanise them and have the listener care about their fate, that makes Clear Heart Full Eyes a work of understated beauty.