When an artist has built what for better or worse has come to be hailed as the ideal musical vehicle to couch his grand thematic musings, going solo inevitably feels like a pointless exercise, if not a guaranteed disappointment. This certainly was true of Bruce Springsteen’s first two non-E Street Band rock albums in the ’90s, Human Touch and Lucky Town. And it’s true as well of the first extra-Hold Steady release from the Boss’s beloved Brooklyn acolyte, Craig Finn.
“The Hold Steady is celebratory, but I don’t feel that way 100% of the time,” Finn told Pitchfork. “I’m a human being.” Maybe, though he never tires of positioning himself as a literary superhero: The lineage he’d have us follow goes Kerouac, Dylan, Springsteen, Craig! (though lately he’s also name-checking Graham Greene and Joan Didion). But the first half of that statement promises that the singer and songwriter is exploring some sadder, subtler musical territory than his regular band’s admittedly infectious and uplifting roots/classic-rock bombast. And a Bon Iver beard-rock confessional or lulling chillwave sonic pillow this ain’t.
The 11 songs on Cleart Heart, Full Eyes—a title that’s a sad jumbling of the “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra of Friday Night Lights (r.i.p.)—simply play as watered-down versions of the Hold Steady’s rock-roll roar, while Finn delivers the slightly grumbly, blue-collar shot-and-a-beer epiphanies that are his stock in trade in two standard varieties: faux stream-of-consciousness torrents of words that are never as clever as they seem on closer examination (“From the way you picked up the phone, I could tell you weren’t going to die/February is as long as it is wide”), and chanted, endlessly repeated refrains that never are as profound as Finn would have us believe (“My head is really hurting, I had to take her to Apollo, baby”).
True, the auteur occasionally scores with a funny, self-deprecating one-liner (many of them in “New Friend Jesus”: “It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band… It’s hard to catch with holes in your hands…,” etc.). But the goodwill he builds up there is squandered by gratuitous evocations of Johnny Rotten and the late, lamented leader of Queen. “Good old Freddie Mercury/Is the only guy that advises me,” the singer croaks. Would that that were true! Because minus the conspiratorial wink with which Mercury leavened his band’s pomposity—to say nothing of the undeniable momentum of the group—Craig Finn just isn’t as much fun.
Rating on the four-star scale: 1.5 stars.