Clear Heart Full Eyes starts off curiously. Sure, “Apollo Bay” establishes that Finn’s solo debut is a separate project compared with The Hold Steady, but it’s also a minimal and boring song—among the worst and most forgettable on the record. He speaksings over a wandering guitar with some occasional slide that ultimately gets repetitive: something I won’t say about the rest of the record. I think it’s supposed to give an air of roving through a wasteland, but mostly it just makes me tune out for five minutes.
The intro track, though, is misleading. While built around Texas session musicians and a humid, lonely streak befitting of that geography, the rest of the album successfully mixes up sounds and characters (Finn’s strength), while alternately branching out from his popular main band.
The start is slow, but it picks up with the somber yet up-tempo “No Future” and really gets moving on “New Friend Jesus,” a bluegrass-styled song that’s a bit repetitive and heavy-handed, but the tempo change really defines the rest of the album. It leads into “Jackson,” which is a highlight with its storytelling narration. The music starts out minimal but builds, twists, and rises along with the narration, peaking as the storyline develops. Finn’s narration has long been his strength, and even with the varied (read: quieter) instrumentation, it’s the lyrics that shine. My growing gripe with Hold Steady releases is the wanky guitar solos, and their absence here is appreciated. Another lyrical highlight is “Balcony,” a country ballad with a lot of slide guitar and peppered with Minnesota-centric lyrics.
The downside isn’t so much the tempo and the tone but the balance and sequencing. Finn has never been much of a singer, and while he’s improved his chops over the years, the record still comes across as monotone over eleven songs. The instrumentation does what it can to mix things up, with organ and slide guitar giving some variety where his voice cannot. Still, it gets a bit drab on a start to finish listen in a way that louder rock, as with The Hold Steady, suits him better. There are definitely some choice cuts here, but as a whole it feels a bit sleepy and forgettable.
6.7 / 10
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