Do you get sick of listening to me talk about the musicians who are insanely important to me? I’m sure you are. Get on with the review already! I can hear you screaming when I write about Radiohead, The Mountain Goats, or Neutral Milk Hotel. We get it, you have feelings! One of my very favorite Silver Jews lyrics is incredibly simple: “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” It holds true for the man singing it (David Berman), but it also holds true for a lot of the people I adore in music. Jeff Mangum, John Darnielle, Bjork, and Scott Walker? Tom Waits? They sound like they didn’t know what singing was before they started doing it, and then found out later that there’s a way to do it. And god bless them, I love that about them. But of all of the singers I know of that I can honestly say have influenced the way I do things, I’d say Craig Finn has done the most damage, for better or worse.
Craig Finn has almost never been a “singer,” so much as a “guy with a guitar who sing-talks through drunken stories.” It wasn’t until I first heard Boys And Girls In America that I realized that you don’t necessarily have to have the best singing voice, or even a singing voice at all, to convey the message you want to get across. Could you imagine some guy with a clear, lilting singing voice pulling off songs like “The Cattle and the Creeping Things?” What about “Positive Jam?” Of course not. His sound has always been as much of a part of the sound of his bands (it goes way back to the days of Lifter Puller, when his stories were actually seedier and more warped) as Tad Kubler’s guitar tone, and it almost feels ridiculous to picture it any other way. But what happens when, instead of taking the Craig Finn out of the Hold Steady, but you take the Hold Steady out of the Craig Finn?
The first few seconds of “Apollo Bay” sound like a late-period Iron & Wine cut, pumped with bluesy, warbling tinge. It could almost be Sam Beam waiting to chime in like an angel, but instead, it’s the nasally cadence of Mr. Finn, with a little bit of half-tone poetry. It’s a strange start to the album, but it sets the pace insanely quickly: Clear Heart Full Eyes is going to be an incredibly varied affair. And that really isn’t the worst thing.
One of the most interesting things to notice, on first listen, is that if you didn’t know it, you’d never think the aforementioned seedy stories were ever part of Finn’s day job. It’s imperative that I drive that point home: if you’re really just looking for a Hold Steady detour that’s a Hold Steady record (but without the rest of the band), you’re not in the right place whatsoever. Finn is 40-years-old now, and it’s pretty possible that his whiling ways have caught up with him, and made him incredibly sad. It’s a bouncy, breezy affair on the surface, but listening to songs like “When No One’s Around,” (in which he calls out every big-talker who boasts the exploits of what happened when nobody was looking) it’s clear that he’s getting a little sick of things around him. This leads to a surprisingly fully-realized record, not from a man who has something to prove (or new ideas to try out), but from a man who has nothing to prove. All the killer parties and massive nights are conspicuously absent, and they’re replaced by an incredibly insular series of songs (yes, even more so than usual). If pressed to sum up the record in a single line, I’d say it comes from record (and possibly career) highlight “Western Pier,” with its strange tale of having to run from your own personal history: “The girls that live in my heart / Keep coming up the boulevard.” “Rented Room” is an ode to cutting yourself off from the world, and really solidifies the difference between this album, and every other record with his stamp on it: it’s the counterbalance to the “woah-oh” themes all over his other works.
Its been two years since the last Hold Steady record, Heaven is Whenever, came out, and one of the questions that comes to mind for me is, where was all of this then? The feelings expressed by Finn on Clear Eyes are almost definitely not new, and would have turned that album into a much different album. Listening to that one, there was a definite lack of something (besides the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay), as though everyone involved was holding back. Clear Heart Full Eyes is possibly the best thing Craig Finn has done since Boys and Girls in America, and it would have lead to a beautiful leap forward for his main band. I, for one, hope that these changes made leak out onto the next Hold Steady record. If not, at least we know he’s still capable of beauty.