Besides being one of America's greatest rock bands, the Hold Steady are the closest thing we have to a messy, rowdy, wordy, art-rock version of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
So it shouldn't be any surprise that frontman Craig Finn's first album under his own name, "Clear Heart, Full Eyes," is akin to one of Springsteen's "solo" albums — stripping away the raucousness to reveal the haunted quality that's always been there beneath the hyper-literacy and celebrative, boozy band dynamics.
The advance spin on "Clear Heart" had Finn writing more autobiographically and from the heart, and putting less emphasis on his tendency toward fanciful short stories. There may be truth in that, but you'd be initially hard-pressed to know it initially, given the wealth of details and characters Finn continues to pack into these supposedly personal tales.
"When No One's Watching," one of the standout tracks, is a riveting indictment of "a weak man living off of weaker women." But Finn would hardly be content to lob generic broadsides at promiscuous sexual predators who abuse their power and status. So we get the nitty-gritty from "Wendy at the Wagon Wheel" (a bar that pops up in another song, too) and how the song's villain "went running back into Maria's arms/You said it's really just the best thing for the baby." Somehow the specificity seems to spur Finn on to even greater fits of righteous rage.
Moral judgment doesn't play such a big role across the rest of the album. "Jackson" offers a pair of characters whose psychological maladies are fascinatingly contrasted. "Stephanie was long on looks and short on mental health," Finn sings. "She said depression is an ocean and it's prone to tides and swells." The more afflicted title character, though, suffers from something different: "Anxiety's persistent/It's an ambitious politician/It keeps knocking at your door until you come and let it in."
Who needs the DSM-IV manual when you've got Craig Finn to explain things?
If we were really to diagnose Finn's state of mind from the handful of first-person songs, we might imagine he'd gone through a rough patch. "Rented Room" is as close as Finn has ever come to writing a song describing a universal condition without character names or geographical details, and it's lonesome as hell. "I bathe in the dark/It feels like the womb," he sings, describing in wrenching detail the life of a single guy who hasn't forgotten one detail of the domestic rituals he used to enjoy as half of a couple.
By the time the album closes with "Not Much Left of Us" — in which "the part that remains is rotten and bruised, the soft spot on a piece of fruit" — you'll either be reveling in the forlorn spareness or begging for the quick return of what someone once called "America's best bar band."
Not that Finn's really going it alone here, since he gets able support from a pick-up crew of studio musicians who emphasize a brand of unhurried Americana that's never much figured into the Hold Steady's nervous speed.
The title "Clear Heart, Full Eyes" will seem familiar to "Friday Night Lights" fans, being a reversal of the coach's motto. Finn's heart can hardly be described as "full" on this collection of solitary ruminations. But it's still a ticker full of soul.