Yes, the first solo album from Hold Steady singer Craig Finn eponymously references Friday Night Lights, the late, great TV drama about how small towns can feel like one big family—or inescapable coffins. But otherwise, the songs on Clear Heart Full Eyes have no connection to the series beyond a similar feel for the scattered details that make up the lives of average, unexceptional people yearning for the chance to be anything but. (An exception might be “When No One’s Watching,” about a local hero turned scoundrel that sounds like Tim Riggins 20 years later.)
Over the course of five albums with the Hold Steady, Finn’s played the narrator in tales of teenaged debauchery and twentysomething ennui. But on Clear Eyes, the distance between Finn and his characters has narrowed; these people are older, not terribly wiser, and, like the cash-strapped couple in “Terrified Eyes,” fearfully facing down middle age with limited options. It’s a bleaker vision than what Finn typically offers on Hold Steady albums, and it’s reinvigorated him as a songwriter.
That goes double for the music on Clear Heart, which Finn created in collaboration with musicians from Austin (where he recorded the album with Spoon producer Mike McCarthy). Finn has expressed a kinship with singer-songwriters and country-rockers in recent years, but with The Hold Steady, those influences tend to get drowned out by the bombastic guitars and party hollers for massive nights. On Clear Heart, they finally get a chance to bloom, with Finn getting comfortable with bluesy keyboards and sweeping steel-guitar licks on the swampy opener “Apollo Bay” and more down-home strummers like “New Friend Jesus” and “Balcony.” Only the classic-rock-referencing “No Future”’ sounds anything like a Hold Steady song.
Which is a good thing, because coming after The Hold Steady’s tired-sounding 2010 release, Heaven Is Whenever, it’s nice to hear Finn working in new sonic territory while still sounding like the same old storyteller obsessed with falls from grace and calls for redemption. It seems unlikely that Clear Heart will influence the direction of the next Hold Steady record, but as a solo artist, Finn has created a new world of characters and songs that’s rich enough on its own, and worth someday revisiting.