Early last year, The Hold Steady decided to take a rain check on the album/tour/album/tour roundabout (it can hardly be described as anything so pejorative as a treadmill) they’d been on since heaven was whenever (five albums in eight years, actually), which left their front man, singer and lyricist Craig Finn with time on his hands. A 40-year-old childless bachelor (whatever about his girlfriend status), he could spend his downtime sitting around his Brooklyn apartment by day and going to the bar at night, or he could put the fallow period that might hang heavy to more productive use. A dude who likes to keep busy, he chose the latter course of action. Whatever the reasoning behind its creation the essential question is: if you like The Hold Steady, will you like this? Followed a little ways behind by: even if you don’t care much for The Hold Steady, might you still like this? The answer, on both counts, is a tentative ‘yes’.
The songs are still trademark HS in that lyrically they are still character-driven and richly detailed, still drenched in obsessive Christian imagery, and still deal with Finn’s terminal rogues’ gallery of losers, grifters and ne’er-do-wells – even if these bods a little older, not much wiser, and living out of town now. What’s different is that musically, it’s all stripped back instrumentation and arrangements, lots of space in the sound, lots of pedal steel and snatches of banjo, in what could best be described as country rock, if not quite of the ‘laid back’ variety. You’ll search in vain for a full-on rock stomper, but you’ll still be on edge because of the stories that are being told. To cast the case in the light of the Springsteen comparison that has always weighed heavily around The Hold Steady’s neck, this is Nebraska rather than Born To Run; or, to invoke the example of another old rocker who doesn’t like to be confined by genre, this is Neil Young with the International Harvesters rather than with Crazy Horse.
That’s okay by me. After all, a large part of what has elevated The Hold Steady to the status of the bar band it’s cool for even arty hipsters to like – and this is in no way to discount the manic exuberance of their playing – is Finn’s literate portrayals of teen angst, and the subsequent struggles to retain idealism through the inevitable hard knocks of the aging process. For admirers, it’s diverting to hear those words refracted through a new setting and make no mistake, the butterfly-on-a-pin lyrical zingers are still to the fore: how about ‘Feasting on the weakness of the women who are thinking / You might be held to half the things you’ve told them’ amid the layered guitars of ‘When No One’s Watching’? Or ‘I wish you loved yourself as much as you loved me’ from the Bakersfield screech and moan of ‘Terrified Eyes’?
It’s an oddly sequenced collection too, opening in low-key fashion with ‘Apollo Bay’ – which musically owes more than a lot to the title track of the aforementioned Mr. Young’s On The Beach; then introducing touches of ironic humour in tracks 3 and 4, ‘No Future’ and ‘New Friend Jesus’; and reserving the closest it comes to barroom boogie, the mid-tempo chug of ‘Honolulu Blues’ while the last three cuts, ‘Rented Room’, ‘Balcony’ and ‘Not Much Left O Us’, chronicle the downward spiral of a disintegrating relationship (or a series of different disintegrating relationships) to increasingly downbeat melodies. My personal favourite is ‘Rented Room’, all Sun Records slapback echo soundtracking lines like ‘I bathe in the dark, feels like the womb / I know I should be getting over you / Certain things’re really hard to do / When you’re living in a rented room’. Hey, we’ve all been there, right?
If you like The Hold Steady primarily for their volume and clamour, over and above verbal dexterity, then you might find Clear Heart Full Eyes less than riveting. If, however, you do listen to the words, and are open to other kinds of music, then this slice of contemporary Americana should be right up your street. Finn has admirably fulfilled the remit he set himself about ‘making it new’ when he set out from Brooklyn to Austin. Still and all, quite a few of these numbers sound like they could still be Hold Steady songs, if they were played louder and faster. Maybe, one day, they will be.