Considering the motif of lapsed Catholicism that crops up repeatedly throughout the catalog of the Hold Steady, the frequent references to Jesus on Clear Heart, Full Eyes – the first solo record by HS frontman Craig Finn – shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But while his past releases occasionally handled religious topics with a healthy dose of cynicism, one can’t help but wonder if this is Finn’s coming-out party as a card-carrying Believer. He explains the album title, which gives an admiring nod to critically-acclaimed football drama Friday Night Lights, as follows: “‘Clear Heart’ signifies honesty and transparency, and ‘Full Eyes’ suggests experience.” In other words, it’s about being optimistic and open without succumbing to the weariness of doubt that comes with age and experience.
For Full Eyes, Finn set up shop inAustin,Texas, recruiting members of Heartless Bastards, Phosphorescent, White Denim and Centro-matic to play with him. Despite the crack musicians, Finn reserves his highest praise for a more famous player, singing, “It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band.” That’s a punchline, admittedly, but it’s also one of the most musically satisfying of the countless Christ references and allusions throughout. It comes from “New Friend Jesus,” a rollicking classic-country tune and album highlight.
Elsewhere, intriguing characters with incomplete backstories emerge (“Jackson”), punk references are tossed about (“No Future”), and the kind of word wizardry that’s earned Finn both praise and scorn is utilized to fine effect (“Terrified Eyes”). The voice delivering those words isn’t quite as singspeaky as it’s been in the past. Instead, Finn’s opted to soften his vocals to suit the more pastoral arrangements on Clear Heart Full Eyes – which is one reason the record might not resonate with the typical beer-hoisting dude who’s supported Finn’s music in the past. Then again, if Clear Hearts is any indication, that’s not the Man that Finn was looking to please in the first place.