The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn has established himself as a poet laureate of the burnouts, washouts and losers. It's an easy sell and appropriate to The Hold Steady's boisterous bar-band brand of rock. But when Finn wrote the songs for his solo debut, January's Clear Heart Full Eyes, he wanted to go a different direction — one more reflective of his present circumstance.
"When Springsteen became an adult he started writing about adults, and that's really interesting to me," says Finn by phone from Seattle. "This idea you're going to get to be an adult and things are going to be OK, but you've just inherited a different set of problems and frustrations.
"Those people — the sort of burnt-out losers — are fascinating. How'd they get there, and [with] a couple bad decisions, could I wind up there? It's a more subtle thing to be talking about a couple that just can't get it right or is drifting apart. But all of Raymond Carver's stories were very subtle, but they're so good it's terrifying. You see yourself in it, in the people that are not quite scraping by and getting older."
Finn wrote Clear Heart during a rare five-month break in The Hold Steady's busy schedule — with five albums in eight years and commensurate touring, there's hardly been a breath in between. Finn felt it was necessary to take a break, lest they make the same album they did last time. He also saw this as an opportunity to broaden his horizons both lyrically and musically by playing with new people in a different musical setting.
Armed with only an acoustic guitar and some songs, Finn went to Austin in July, where producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead) hooked him up with some local players. Their playing is largely responsible for the album's Texas-country sound, though the instrumentation — particularly the pedal steel's strong presence — obviously plays a role.
Recording his vocals live in the room with the band gave them greater vibrancy, Finn thinks, and the lower-key backing arrangements (particularly compared to THS's barroom buzz) allowed him take his lyrics darker places. His keenly detailed, conversational narratives survey "Terrified Eyes," unrepentant "weak men living off of weak women," and people who proudly claim to have "only died on the inside." This is definitely not a "Positive Jam."
"I got a little fatigued by optimism," Finn jokes. "We were playing these big, anthemic songs, and they feel optimistic — 'You've got your back up against the wall / You have one chance to get out of town / You're going to make it girl.' It all sort of wraps up nicely. But with this solo record it's a lot quieter, and I thought that it could be more intimate and vulnerable if I could stay on the bleakness instead of wrapping it up with a shiny pink bow."