Between 2005 and 2008 I saw The Hold Steady more times than I can readily recall, every time they came to the UK, sometimes twice or more on the same tour; once I even ended up on stage during the encore, bashing the drums with Bobby Drake’s spare sticks (which now sit atop my CD shelf along with the two dollars bassist Galen Polivka paid for one of my wife’s cigarettes). In my late twenties, I had finally found a group deserving of the full-blown fanatacism usually shown by teenage girls towards the latest boy-band, and I preached their brilliance to everyone I knew, turning friends, work colleagues and even my father-in-law into fellow believers. But I have to admit that I was apprehensive about frontman Craig Finn’s debut solo album Clear Heart Full Eyes. THS’s last long-player Heaven Is Whenever – whilst, by no means, a bad record – was a disappointment in comparison to its predecessors: not only had the in-jokes and recurring characters that populated Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday, Boys And Girls In America and (to a lesser extent) Stay Positive disappeared, but it felt like a lot of the punk-rock spirit that had always made them such a convincing party band had gone too. Clear Heart solves that problem by presenting Finn in a completely different context; whilst his lyrics (or should I say stories?) are still largely character-based, they seem more like characters based on himself at 40 – more world-weary, less optimistic – than on drug-addled drunk teenagers and, as such, the change from Springsteen bar-blues and Thin Lizzy-influenced hard rock to a downbeat, often acoustic, country-based sound is one that makes perfect sense. Recorded in Austin, TX by Spoon producer Mike McCarthy, with a band including members of White Denim, Phosphorescent, Heartless Bastards and Centromatic, the album is a mid-paced, atmospheric listen, and although it’s more suited to nights alone with a whiskey bottle than beer-soaked mosh-pits, it includes plenty of typically cryptic couplets (immediate favourite, from “New Friend Jesus”: “People say we suck at sports, but they don’t understand/ it’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands”) to rank with Finn’s finest. You can stream the whole album here, courtesy of NPR.
Clear Hearts Full Eyes is out January 23rd on Vagrant/ Full Time Hobby