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Craig Finn
Clear Heart Full Eyes Michael James Hall , February 10th, 2012 10:28

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The Hold Steady have spent the last decade being the greatest underdog bar band since The Replacements – charging drunk at stages, lighting fuses on vinyl, always aflame, always living and playing at full pelt. Even when it may have felt they were preaching drugs and break-ups and Catholic guilt/redemption to the converted they still attacked it like veritable classic rock hellhounds.

On Clear Heart Full Eyes Finn, the literary shaman of the club scene, takes a step back from the raucous rock sound of his fulltime band, sits to one side on the stage of haphazard disaster and desire that infect the lives of his characters, cleans his glasses on his shirt sleeve, nods and quietly observes.

Cracking open a little 'On The Beach' Neil Young sadness on the album's opening notes, it's obvious that, misleading single 'Honolulu Blues' aside, we're out of THS territory and delving into a more reflective, maybe even lonesome place than we've visited with him before. Finn, who admits to not being much of a music writer himself, allows the tracks to be lead by his band. White Denim's Josh Block shines on the time-changing jazz shuffle of 'When No-one's Watching', while Phosphorescent collaborator Ricky Johnson layers the ghostly beauty of his steel pedal guitar all over these Americana-infused tunes.

The arrangements are simple, often pretty, only rarely slipping from clarity into predictability ('Western Pier'), only once giving off the feel of a 'session' band ('New Friend Jesus'), but mostly they serve to support the delivery of some of Finn's most evocative and well observed lyrics.

While it takes Finn less than three minutes to drop his first religious reference ("All 12 apostles can be seen from the shore") any concerns over treading old ground are eased by the cryptic, tense 'Apollo Bay' in which Finn may well be making a takeout and a few beers sound ominous ("Vietnamese and six or seven VBs" he drawls). Tracks like the countrified 'Terrified Eyes' with it's allusions to rehab and suicide, the inevitability of falling back into old ways ("When you come back from the hospital we cant go back to the Wagon Wheel / and if we do we can't go every night" he admonishes, a little defeated); 'Balcony' with it's story of duplicity and betrayal backed with a 'Document' era REM twang, and closer 'Not Much Left Of Us' are lachrymose, late night highlights that, while perhaps a little drunk, a little high, are sobering indeed.

Sometimes, as on 'Jackson', a Donald Fagen chanelling ode to a cracked actor, and on 'No Future', a steadfast tale of rocknroll stoicism and refusal to quit, it feels like it swings when it should explode, sings when it should scream. These, though are reservations based on the expectation of THS anthems – there's nothing as obvious or rabble rousing as a 'Chips Ahoy' or 'Constructive Summer' here.

Finn's humour, however tempered, is still intact – lines like "It's hard to suck with Jesus in your band" ('New Friend Jesus') and the strangely bittersweet "By the way you picked up the phone, I could tell you weren't gonna die / February's not as long as it is wide" feel soul-deep but simultaneously comically delicious.

So has Finn taken his foot off the gas, set down his bottle of Jameson's and parked himself in a pedestrian, observational role? While the temperance of the music and delivery may suggest so, the spirit of the man's poetry and the keen spark of his intelligence tell us not. After a satisfying refuel like this, expect the next Hold Steady record to explode.