When the Hold Steady covered the Minutemen’s “History Lesson Part II,” lead singer Craig Finn tweaked the lyrics to fit his own experience better. This resulted in the line, “Me and Tad Kubler we’ve played for years; punk rock changed our lives.” This reflects how their collaboration has shaped his musical career since Kubler joined Lifter Puller for their final album, Fiestas and Fiascos. Throughout the Hold Steady’s five albums, Kubler’s written the melodies, with Finn contributing lyrics. One would expect the main question to be – musically, how does Finn’s solo debut, Clear Heart, Full Eyes sound?
Although Finn explores Country, Folk, and Jangle-Pop sounds on it, his voice remains the most distinctive element. He continues to talk-sing some of Rock’s most interesting lyrics on Clear Heart, Full Eyes; yet the atmosphere created by Finn’s vocals dominates the album. The frailty of his friend John Darnielle’s voice creates a sense of vulnerability that inhabits Mountain Goats’ songs. Finn’s talk-sing, stripped from its usual Bar-Rock or Post-Punk backing, creates a sense of nervousness.
This effect is most evident when he combines it with slow-to-mid tempo riffs repeated throughout “When No One’s Watching” and “No Future”, to build to an anxious tension. After a few sparser tracks, culminating in “Western Pier,” it nearly exhausts the listeners’ patience. “Honolulu Blues” feels like a breath of fresh air, despite not having an original bone in its body. It combines the Catholic imagery familiar to any Hold Steady fan with a Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street Country-Blues sound. Although none of the following three songs retains its tempo, they maintain its ragged energy.
Although Clear Heart, Full Eyes features a number of standout tracks that fit together as a cohesive whole, it is a problematic whole. Finn’s success in combining lyrics about characters experiencing ennui with music pushing a nervous energy makes the album exhausting by its end.