Religion is tricky. It’s something a vast majority of people believe in, one form or another, yet it’s very mention in the culture of pop is perplexing if not doused in irony. We can sing about masturbating, or killing people, or committing other felonies (or in Tyler, the Creator’s case, all three at the same time), but earnestly expressing ones convictions toward Jesus Christ renders a genuinely awkward moment.
Craig Finn wants to, or perhaps more accurately, has begun to, change that. His greatest album, Separation Sunday, bandied about notions of baptism and genuflection, all revolving around a girl named Hallelujah. Winking nods to Christianity, but earnest ones. So when the zippy track “New Friend Jesus” pumps its White Stripes-like childhood earnestness and positivity about a man who can’t play sports because of crucifixion holes in his hands, it’s almost awkward how natural Jesus’ presence feels on Finn’s first solo full-length, Clear Heart Full Eyes.
To allay fears – Clear Heart isn’t that old straw man Christian Rock. It’s not selling a message, and Finn doesn’t particularly bare his soul (with the obvious exception of the painful, bluesy opener “Apollo Bay”). What Finn’s faith does instead is inform the illustrious, brutal and vivid story-telling that one has come to rightly expect from Finn. Right before professing Jesus as a righteous judge on “Western Pier,” Finn drops the line “the just judge said I’m sorry love’s been such a letdown / let’s proceed with the shakedown.” Clear Heart is a fantastic meditation on faith, the trials by which our lives are assessed. And the line right after the profession? “I don’t even know what’s east of here / I came up the western pier.”
All-encompassing darkness surrounds and becomes the record, despite the music being some of Finn’s cheeriest and most Americana-infused work to date. The glorious riffage of “Honolulu Blues” belies the narrative – the insatiable need for proof, the resignation that we all now have to “roll the rock away and check the tomb.” The album plays both sides of this coin with a certain cunning – some of the hardest concepts to deal with are here, yet they’re infused inside immediately accessible sonics.
On sonics, the album attains a distinctly homespun feel, sprouting from the way various tracks jam on enjoyably for a few extra seconds than they would in a normal rock song or the incessant count-offs Finn spouts all over the beginnings and ends of songs. The texture, the roughshod and spartan production all compliment Finn’s strained talk-song. Somewhere, Conor Oberst is listening to Outer South and suddenly feels less certain about it’s “brilliance.”
If Clear Heart is more than the sum of its parts (and it certainly is), its parts, taken separately, are fairly brilliant as well. The end of hero worship in the mystical “When No One’s Watching,” the tragedy of anxiety (a feeling Finn has admitted to having) finally taking its toll to the titular “Jackson,” or the frustrating, violent and often brutal struggle against addiction in “Terrified Eyes” all have the clear-headed vision of professional songwriter and the wisdom of an old soul. Viewing Finn’s career through a prism of growing up, from Lifter Puller’s post-teen frustration to early Hold Steady twenty-something ennui to later Hold Steady declarations of lesson, Clear Hearts is the reckoning of age, the terrors of being past it all.
Finn never expects hope to arrive. Good Old Johnny Rotten chronicled the death of the inside in “No Future,” and lest the listener begin to believe there is a happy ending to this tangled story of defeated people, “Balcony” and “Not Much Left of Us” excellently erase such belief. For all the talk of Jesus’ forgiveness at the altar, Finn rightly points out that there’s still that troubling bit about living out this rotten passion fruit of a life. The last line may be slightly pat, but that’s the point. As mournful, gorgeous fiddle and slide guitar whine below, Craig Finn reaches a comfort that comes from being on the losing side of a zero sum game. Just like the lament in “Rented Room,” Finn lets out “there are nights when I’m still in love with you.” He never loses his religion – Clear Heart isn’t designed to confirm or deny such things. Mostly, this sometimes rollicking, sometimes plaintive, persistently affecting album reminds Finn’s audience (most younger than he) that there’s light on the horizon, but you wouldn’t be wrong in noticing that the current landscape is desolate. No hope, but no fear, just experience – resoundingly told by a transcendent storyteller.
Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes tracklist:
- “Apollo Bay”
- “When No One’s Watching”
- “No Future”
- “New Friend Jesus”
- “Terrified Eyes”
- “Western Pier”
- “Honolulu Blues”
- “Rented Room”
- “Not Much Left of Us