There’s a pejorative connotation to the phrase “genre piece,” but there shouldn’t be. Beneath the phrase is the same elitist line-drawing that lies behind the literary versus non-literary fiction fiction. Frankenstein is a zombie novel; Treasure Island is a pirate story. My favorite Pynchon novels are Inherent Vice and Mason & Dixon, which, like so-called commercial fiction, are exciting in the way that they toy with the narrative conventions of detective and adventure genres respectively, and their literary merit is enhanced rather than undermined by the fact that a playful acceptance and subversion of those conventions defines the books’ style. Likewise, if you were to list Bob Dylan’s three most important albums (whatever that means), Nashville Skyline probably wouldn’t make the cut.
Clear Heart Full Eyes, Craig Finn’s first solo album, presents itself in much the same way; the repeated first line recalls blues tropes (“My head was really hurtin’/ I had to take it to Apollo Bay”), and the tightly-rehearsed, abrupt musical shifts of The Hold Steady are nowhere to be found, replaced by pedal steel and (once) a banjo. The feeling of Clear Hearts, Full Eyes replaces The Hold Steady’s city-bound claustrophobia with yearning across wide spaces. It has the feel of a Nashville session recording largely because it kind of was: the backing band is made up of hired guns, and the album was recorded in about a week. So all the things that give an album its personality — the sound of a band finding its feet, the little tempo fluctuations, the requisite “are we rolling, Bob?” fits and starts — are here in spades.
Taken as a whole, the arc of Clear Hearts Full Eyes is bleak. Really bleak. “Apollo Bay” begins with a drive down the coast, a nervous bachelor whose “nights just go to hell.” From then on, the theme is disappointment. “Terrified Eyes” is as close as we get to romantic fulfillment, a song about two people driving each other crazy — for this, he lapses into Hold Steady frontman mode with rapid-fire lyrical cadences — while the final track finds them parting ways with “not much left of us.”
While the proclamations about Finn being the greatest Catholic (if only in upbringing) rock songwriter since Springsteen are way overstated, they both share a certain populist quality. But the usual urban-industrial Catholic populism of The Hold Steady works here alongside a red state, sola fide sort of populism — Finn has said “a lot of the songs deal with displacement” — which at least jibes with the pedal steel. In “Western Pier,” divine mercy is contrasted with the cruel judge; and in “New Friend Jesus,” the insouciant theology is more playful than guilty. It also aligns with the geography: “Western Pier” is a story of accidental criminality, rendered in magical realism, of a drifter who “don’t even know what’s East of here,” while “Apollo Bay” is all the way in Australia. In either mode, Finn is self-aware enough take his religion lightly; Jesus turns out to “suck at sports,” but that’s only because “it’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands.”
Several reviewers have pointed out the last chunk of “Rented Room” as evidence that Finn is pulling down his literary mask and getting a bit more personal. It’s a really powerful section; Finn sings “I bathe in the dark. It feels like the womb/ I know I should be getting over you/ Certain things are really hard to do.” But Finn’s still got his characters, his troubled idealistic strivers no less believable for the fanciful way he sketches them. “When No One’s Watching” indicts the playboy-esque hero for “feasting on the weakness of the women who were thinking you might be held to half the things you told them.” He meets “Wendy at the Wagon Wheel” and the devil “at the riverside Perkins.” It’s like Runyon or Wolfe for the children of the culture war. Put another way, Finn is a product of his time. To approach the album, you need to accept the fact that the title is inspired by Friday Night Lights. “Honolulu Blues” has the feel of a mid-1980s Dylan song and one of my favorite Gen-X non sequiturs of all time: “Joan Didion and Graham Greene/ Said roughly the same thing/ You bring Jesus to the jungle/ Try to teach people to sing.”
To hear some critics tell it, the fact that Clear Heart Full Eyes seems a bit more personal has everything to do with some pastoral desire on Finn’s part to disengage from his usual creative outlet and be more unvarnished. But what about The Hold Steady’s last album, Heaven is Whenever, about which the main complaint was the lack of specific narrative? Finn stated back in 2008 that he wanted to use more personal pronouns and that that didn’t necessarily mean the stories and characters were going anywhere — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying on a new personality for its own sake. Why freight the album with all that personal gravitas when all he’s said is, “I wanted to try something a little different”? The best thing about Nashville Skyline is the goofy way Dylan takes up the role of the crooning country ladykiller and nobody called him a sleaze for it. I’ve never totally bought this weird sentimental augury that seeks psychological explanations for all aspects of a music and burdens every work with the personal existential conflicts of the artist. Clear Heart Full Eyes is clothed in a folk music, which means it’s not especially well suited to readings as a man-to-cosmos statement. The logic of formalism stems from a desire for transcendence, for music that’s more than just food and drink, and it remains a noble goal. But that doesn’t mean we have to miss out on brioche or Dom Pérignon.