Craig Finn's Clear Heart Full Eyes: A First Listen
1. It's not going to save rock 'n' roll.
2. It's not going to be a meta-narrative about how it doesn't save rock and roll.
If the last Hold Steady album, Heaven Is Whenever, proves anything, it's that the guy is sick of and slightly worried by the amount of attention he's gotten for documenting his manufactured-turned-true rock heroism over and over. The Hold Steady was beloved as an ironic comment on classic rock bands, then somewhat as mini-arena heroes who straddled the fence between reality and fantasy, and finally disappointed everyone by dispensing with irony altogether. They revealed themselves to hate Radiohead after all, probably to indie rock's chagrin, and the finest song on Heaven exasperatedly tried to explain, "We can't be good every night." Yeesh. So I don't begrudge him if the new solo detour Clear Heart, Full Eyes is as bad or weird as Lulu -- dude needs a palate cleanser. But just for fun I'm gonna judge him anyway. Craig Finn plays the Noise Pop Festival Feb. 21 at Bottom of the Hill.
Early reports of this thing, like the NPR page I'm streaming it from, are calling it a "'lyrics record." Uh, you're kidding? Not to be the guy who's all have-you-heard-the-early-stuff but until "Chips Ahoy!" I don't remember being able to notate Craig Finn's vocals on a Hold Steady record before. Because there weren't melodies. The riffs supported the narratives and phrasing, more repetition of characters and joke setups ("My name's Robbie Robertson but people call me Robo") than refrains or stanzas. But this first song has a big, wordless pedal steel break for atmosphere. And the lyrics are actually kind of hard to make out, a first for Finn. I think he's muttering about apostles. The music sounds like recent, Americana-inflected Modest Mouse. Which brings up a good question: why hasn't Isaac Brock made a pedal steel-haunted solo record yet?
"When No One's Watching"
Again, maybe it's the effect of being told the music is not the story here, or maybe it's just the shock of hearing him without the Hold Steady's triumphalist backing, but all I'm noticing is the music here. The jazzy drums and freeform-yet-repetitive guitar figure are hypnotic on this one, and I'm pretty sure I already like this better than the comparatively formulaic Heaven Is Whenever. But as I try to bear down on the words, I notice what's so hard about it: proper nouns are scarce. For some reason, I like this. I usually prefer concrete lyrics, with names and places, but because Finn's previous words were only ever names and places, it's refreshing to have to figure out what he's talking about.
This is a great sung -- well, muttered -- melody, the first particularly distinct one, on a low-key rocker reminiscent of the criminally ignored Garland Jeffreys. "I'm pretty sure we're all gonna die" is a classic Finn line, and yet it's perfect in this context, as an old, confused rocker on his first, confused solo record. Uh-oh, he just rhymed "Freddie Mercury" and "Calgary" then name-checked Johnny Rotten, a name-drop that the mostly un-meta Neil Young beat him to by 33 years. But I laughed at "The devil's a person/ I met him at the Riverside Perkins," so it's okay.
"New Friend Jesus"
This is the most bumpkin-friendly song so far, from the noodle-y chord progression to the metaphorical device: "It's hard to suck with Jesus in your band." He gets some good comedy out of further situations -- what if Jesus played baseball? Well, "it's hard to catch with holes in your hands." Fun, raggedy, lightweight tune but country-phobic critics about to jack off to this ought to save the accolades for the pros. Hayes Carll makes year-end lists with this stuff.
Yeah all right, those early tunes were shy flukes. Finn gets some typically smarty wordplay out of juggling the names Jackson (an actor, well, "when he was well") and Stephanie ("she was good to me but not so much to herself") here. The music is odd and spare and atonal in ways he's never really done before -- I'm genuinely pleased that this guy I was so sick of doesn't seem to be in a rut after all. But this just convinces me that the groove he's settled into will be better than Stephen Malkmus'.