Craig Finn — Clear Heart Full Eyes. Out 1/24/2012. Vagrant Records.
The thing is — and this doesn’t make me an expert, or smug and self-satisfied, or anything but opinionated, this is just the way I feel — the thing is that I think there’s a certain something in Craig Finn’s songwriting, a tiny pinch of some rare spice metaphorically speaking, that goes by you if you haven’t spent some formative years drunk and fucked-up and sleeping with all the wrong people in southern Minnesota. Not everyone who spent their early 20s being and doing those things in Minneapolis likes Craig or the Hold Steady; but those of us who did, and do, I think there’s a piece of us that feels that way because listening to Craig Finn’s songwriting is like being, well, 19 and drunk and fucked-up and sleeping with all the wrong people, putting cigarettes out on our arms and having breakfasts that consisted of two shots of rum and one shot of DayQuil. we’re gonna drive around and drink some more, you know?
All of the Hold Steady’s albums feel this way to me — hallelujah was a sexy mess — and so does, in its own way, Clear Heart Full Eyes. Craig Finn is drawn to the kids who aren’t the losers, but love the losers, I guess. Craig Finn writes anthems for the isolationists, which sounds so funny but it’s true — even in a crowd at a Hold Steady show, Finn’s lyrics still make me feel fucked up and 19 and alone. Somehow he makes it okay. Somehow he writes songs for those of us who keep getting our hearts broken by the losers we love, by life, by living. He writes songs that make me feel less alone in my loneliness.
and my days stretch out before me/and my nights just go to hell
If the Hold Steady’s records are about fucked up kids and the fucked up things they do to feel alive, Clear Heart Full Eyes is about those fucked up kids when they grow up. It’s an album about telling the stories of your messed up history, the good parts and the bad parts. I don’t worry so much about feeling alive anymore, because I am alive, but I do worry about who I am, and making sure that I’m true to the person I’ve grown up through all those Minnesota winters to be. It’s about what we do in public and what we do in private — the hero that you are when no one’s watching — all filtered through the clever, the too-clever, lyrics that Finn is famous for now.
The thing is, I want Craig Finn’s songwriting to be too-clever, because at 19 and at 32, I thought I was more clever than I was, I think I’m more clever than I am. Clear Heart Full Eyes is an album for the best parts of us, because that’s the way that Finn writes; even the songs like, well, “No Future”, are about surviving and forging on. It doesn’t glamorize depression or the scars on your wrists; in a song like “Jackson” it faces the monster of clinical illness and the fear of suicide front on, in “Terrified Eyes” it treats a hospitalization as though it’s normal, it’s simply a fact of life. The worst parts of us are the pieces that scare us, but the best parts are the ones that can keep loving and surviving the worst parts. The best parts of us are the ones that made it to be the grown-up versions of those fucked-up kids.
in the middle of the day she mostly feels okay
when nighttime comes she just feels terrified
You want to know what happens to the hoodrats when they grow up? What happened to Holly, to Charlemagne? They get day jobs. They still drink too much, they tug their sleeves over the scars on their wrists. They go to therapy. They get out of their hometowns but they still carry ghosts with them. They take their meds, or they don’t; they sleep with their ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends or their ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends. They love all the wrong people, and sometimes they love the right ones, but when they love, they love fiercely. They still make bad decisions. They still make good decisions. They still have scars on their arms and their knees. Sometimes they don’t escape the monster of craziness; mostly they do.
They’re you and me and your next door neighbor. Craig Finn knows how to write an album about what it’s like to be scared and fearless and invincible and crazy and young, but he also knows how to write an album that’s mournful and hopeful and scared and fearless and older. Old punks love the Hold Steady, but Clear Heart Full Eyes is the album that Finn’s actually written for them. It’s maybe not as anthemic — although it remains more anthemic than most of what other people write — as a Hold Steady record, but I’m not as anthemic as I used to be. Sometimes you want to whisper the words that will save you instead of shout them, you know?
Craig Finn knows. Craig Finn made me this record.