By Jim Schutze
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As leader of The Hold Steady, Craig Finn has never been at a loss to find ways to pepper his musical odes to youthful indiscretions and offbeat characters with a dose of lyrical holy water. Not that Finn has used his tunes as a pulpit to preach; he's merely employed his time spent in church as a well from which to draw more color for his characters.
On "Stuck Between Stations," from The Hold Steady's 2006 album Boys and Girls in America, Finn sings, "She was a really cool kisser and she wasn't all that strict of a Christian. She was a damn good dancer, but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend." The heartache and disappointment in that snippet is that of a boy who thought his own Christian ties might finally give him the inside track to the youth group's hottest girl, only to realize he had once again lost out to the bad boys who had the fun he wasn't supposed to.
Christianity's role in Finn's music has continued to show itself with the release of his first solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. It's refreshingly honest in terms of how faith and church work their way into his artistic consciousness.
"I was raised in a family that, while not super-religious, still went to church every Sunday," Finn says as he prepares for a round of solo dates in the U.K. "I think religious themes and references end up in my songs because I seem to go back and forth with it all. I will go to church for a while, then I stop. There are parts of the Catholic church I agree with, and there are parts I'm not so enthralled with. The way I'm so on and off with it all is why it keeps getting into my songs."
When speaking of a higher power or a supreme being — whether in support of one or questioning the existence of one — many musicians take an abstract approach. Finn not only gives religion a matter-of-fact veneer within his storytelling, but in the case of Americana barn-burner "My Friend Jesus," he admits to discussing a very specific image of him.
"The Jesus I want to represent in that song, in many ways, is the human Jesus. The flesh and blood Jesus that lived on Earth and had personal struggles," he says. "We're all trying to be the best we can. Being Christian is trying to emulate Christ as much as you can, even if you can't do it all of the time."
While openly claiming faith and religion isn't exactly standard conversation surrounding a rock star's creations, Finn manages to cut through the labels and preconceived notions of those polarizing tags to address something that most everyone seeks at one point or another.
"The part that attracts me to church is the part where forgiveness is present," he says. "No matter what you believe in, we all have a place for forgiveness in our lives, and there's a beauty in the church that really interests me."
Given that Finn's writing often unfurls more as a novel or short story than a typical rock song, it's fitting he can easily reconcile those polar opposites.
"There's also a real parallel in the way a church service is conducted and the way a rock and roll show is. I like that, too."