I really wanted to love the debut album by The Hold Steady’s front-man Craig Finn. I loved The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday and Boys And Girls In America are two of my favourite albums and seeing the band live was one of the best gigs I have had the privilege to attend. For me the band’s last two albums offered increasingly diminishing returns, seldom returning to my stereo, and although I still liked the band the love was starting to fade. I had high hopes for Clear Heart Full Eyes, I thought that it was the kind of change Finn needed to rediscover his mojo and get back to his best work. Unfortunately I don’t love the record, it is a competent enough album, but it just isn’t quite good enough.
People will listen to this record and applaud Finn for making a big stylistic change from the sounds that you associate with his band. There are no big rock riffs on the record, but the problem is that it is essentially the same kind of record he has made before with a more rootsy instrumental arrangement. The songs are very well played and the arrangements are good, it is just that they aren’t that exciting or memorable. The third song, ‘No Future’, is most like The Hold Steady but sounds like it would have been filler on even their latter albums.
‘New Friend Jesus’ is fine enough, a bouncy backing and some good lyrical couplets, but it really doesn’t add much to the country music catalogue. Other acts have done this kind of thing much better. It also emphasises another weakness, Finn’s vocals. I don’t expect my singers to be pitch perfect or have X-Factor style booming voices, I’m a fan of The Fall’s Mark E Smith, but in front of this kind of trad rock backing Finn’s vocals seem thin. Something they never did over the more aggressive and hard edged sounds on the best Hold Steady tracks.
Craig Finn is too good to make a wholly bad album, and there are some good aspects to this album. The lyrics are of his typically high standard and each song is an interesting story, populated by the usual array of characters. It is also, within the trad format, a pretty varied album stylistically and the band he has assembled for the album are clearly an accomplished bunch.
If you really love the work of Craig Finn, and like the idea of his songs played in a trad-rock style then you’ll probably love this album. If, like me, you want to hear The Hold Steady back at their best then the hope is that this album has got something out of Finn ‘s system and he can bring his best back to the Hold Steady next time around.
By Dorian Rogers