Before press surrounding Craig Finn’s first solo album Clear Heart Full Eyes confirmed it, the Friday Night Lights fans among you probably noticed the juxtaposed reference to the Panthers’ team motto: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” It’s absolutely not surprising that Craig Finn is a huge fan of the show; like Friday Night Lights, Finn has compiled an insightful catalogue exploring the thrills and sadness endemic to a certain place. With rhe Hold Steady, Finn became the Poet Laureate of the Townies, opening us up to what it meant to be young, confused, and/or strung out in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Ybor City, and various towns lining the Mississippi River. He has a gift for capturing small-town pathos, offering a window into the aspirations of fucked-up kids and kids who like to get fucked up (if anyone from Finn’s team is reading, that’s a free title for the next Hold Steady album).
Thematically, Clear Heart is slightly different from what we’re used to hearing from Finn. And although the pills, paraphernalia, and little hoodrat friends are conspicuously absent, it’s not just a sanitized version of the Hold Steady world. Finn’s getting older, and appropriately, CHFE is more restrained than exuberant, preoccupied with adult anxieties and reaping the backlash of the party days. The peppy “No Future” is rife with familiar references to Catholicism and rock icons -- but it also tackles the frustrations of working an office job, the sad thrill of getting your coffee card punched. In general, it’s an album more concerned with dying on the inside instead of overdosing or jumping off the town’s water tower.
Even the instrumentation is dialed-down and mellowed out a bit. These songs aren’t urgent; they’re reflective -- and appropriately, the arrangements tend towards the pensive and slow. Standout track “Apollo Bay” is a thousand-yard stare committed to pedal steel, slide guitars swooning behind lyrics like “All my days stretch out before me/ All my nights just get away from me.” It’s a song about a remote place, coping with isolation and anxious about time slipping away. Even if you miss the Franz Nicolay piano jams (I certainly do), they wouldn’t be well-suited to songs like these anyway.
Clear Heart’s changeups also worm their way into Finn’s vocal delivery. We’re used to hearing Finn talk-singing like there isn’t enough time to spit out everything he has to say, delving into the minutiae of a situation and connecting every point of the situation whatever literature he’d most recently devoured. Clear Heart isn’t as verbose or attention-hungry clever. For a set of songs about older (though not necessarily wiser) subjects, Finn uses broad brushstrokes to establish the situation -- and it’s up to you to fill in the details. This writing technique works to excellent effect on the reeling “Western Pier,” a song about a man who’s witnessed something bad go down. It’s chilling precisely because of all the half-truths and missing information, like a shadier, grown-up version of Neko Case’s “Star Witness.” Though it lacks the lurid detail of something like Stay Positive’s “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” “Pier” is every bit as vivid and affecting.
Finn’s best songs are the ones when he’s fully in the present, in tune with every emotion and every detail his protagonists might experience during a particular moment. These qualities make Clear Heart Full Eyes an especially apt album title; after all, it’s difficult to keep a clear heart and full eyes if you’re reflecting on the past or speculating about the future. It’s the kind of feeling that comes from being truly in the moment, consumed by everything that surrounds you without dwelling on how your actions will affect your future or what got you to this point. These qualities characterize the best songs Finn writes for the Hold Steady, and they’re present in the best songs on CHFE. Living in the moment might be something we associate more with blissed-out kids, but it’s also something you start to do as you age. Album closer “Not Much Left Of Us” carries an extended metaphor about cutting the rotten part off a piece of fruit and truly, completely savoring the rest. Life is a series of isolated great moments with a whole lot of shitty parts in between, a concept you never truly understand and appreciate until you’re a bit older. It’s an attitude Finn wears well.