“I always say it’s never too late to be saved.” -Craig Finn (interview in Paste)
To long time listeners of The Hold Steady, Finn’s statement about salvation, redemption and forgiveness will come as no surprise. Throughout The Hold Steady’s five albums Finn has managed to weave these themes into his rough and tumble stories of drugs, alcohol and partying, often with astonishing emotional force. His debut solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, is less rowdy than the typical Hold Steady record, but Finn’s songs still tread the same spiritual territory as before.
Musically, Clear Heart Full Eyes reminds me of The Hold Steady’s softer songs like Citrus or We Can Get Together, as Finn experiments with Americana and folk, befitting this album’s singer-songwriter feel. Accompanying this musical shift, Finn’s lyrics are more subdued, and we often meet his characters in the monotonous daily routine, not at raging parties or lying face down in the gutter. As a result, Clear Heart Full Eyes is largely bereft of the emotional high and lows that accompany an album like Separation Sunday, trading those for a similarly realistic picture of people whose brokenness is expressed in different ways.
In Jackson, the narrator of the song reminisces about time spent with friends Jackson and Stephanie, and how their friendship dissolved due to depression: “Anxiety is persistent, it’s an ambitious politician. It keeps knocking on your door until you come and let it in. And I think that Jackson let it in.” Or take the startling revelation on the musically upbeat No Future, “I’m pretty sure we’re all gonna die…I’m alive, except for the inside.” The final trio of songs, Rented Room, Balcony and Not Much Left of Us, demonstrate Finn’s uncanny ability to describe heartbreak and the pains of growing up, resonating with an emotional depth while reminding us that there are trials in this life.
Finn grounds his songs and albums in reality, giving him the opportunity to insert redemption and grace into real, earthly narratives. Western Pier comes as a confession, as Finn, appearing before a “just judge,” sings, “You can’t take away all the parts of you, that make you do the things you do.” As the song progresses, we discover that the just judge is Jesus, who “forgives us for our avarice and lust.” Jesus turns up everywhere on Clear Heart Full Eyes, most notably on New Friend Jesus, a playful song where Finn puts Jesus in his band. These references rarely seem cloying or forced, due to the authenticity of the stories Finn has created. His characters are relatable and have the same problems we do, and in them we recognize our own failures and disappointments, making the redemptory moments all the more powerful.
Clear Heart Full Eyes may not rise to the heights of Finn’s work with The Hold Steady, but it is a highly enjoyable, spiritually intriguing album. Or as Finn would put it, “It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band.”