People say we suck at sportsBut they don't understandIt's hard to catch with holes right through your hands.-- from "New Friend Jesus," a track on Craig Finn's terrific new solo album, Clear Heart, Full Eyes
The album title probably sounds familiar. It's a reference to the TV show Friday Night Lights -- as even casual fans know, the Dillon Panthers' motto was "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose." Finn, the frontman for the rock band the Hold Steady, recorded the album in Texas, and the series was on his mind a lot Friday Night Lights resonated with Finn largely because it was about the adults as much as the teenagers.
"I love the way they didn't follow them to college, like (Beverly Hills) 90210," said Finn. "These kids are going to go away, and new kids are going to come up. I know people who are really disappointed. I think that's the brilliant part of the show. In some ways it's about the marriage and the adults.
Finn said he appreciated that, "as a 40-year-old guy who makes his living through rock and roll. You think of rock and roll as music of your youth ..."
"I've written a lot about younger people in my songs," he said. "There is something about perspective -- you can tell what is funny or amusing or scary about being 17 when you're 35."
As a 37-year-old making his living writing about sports, I understand completely. I am older than almost every athlete I cover, and as old as some of the coaches. By the time you can really make some sense of the world you're in, you feel too old to inhabit it.
Naturally, I listened for any overt references to the show, or to football -- perhaps a seven-minute riff about going for it on fourth-and-2 in your own end, and how it helps you overcome your fear of death. (You laugh, but I'm telling you: Finn could pull that off.)
The album, which will be released next week, is terrific. (Don't take my word for it -- the New York Daily News called it "brilliant." Heck, don't take their word for it either. Give it a listen; it's available below.)
The only sports reference I found is the witty lyric at the top of this column. I did sense an underdog theme to a lot of the songs, and I asked Finn about that. He said, "There is a lot on the record about being alone. You can extend that to being an underdog." Hey, when you're a musical genius trying to sell your new solo album, you humor people like me.
Finn is a big sports fan. But these days, that's like saying "Craig Finn is a mammal." Everybody seems to be a sports fan. The question is: Why? Why are people more obsessed with sports than ever?
This may help explain it: Finn started writing his new record when he was on the other side of the world. "I rented a car and drove around very remote parts of Australia," he said. "It might be as alone as you can physically be."
When you are that alone, on the other side of the world, and you miss home, what do you think about? Family, maybe. But increasingly, American cities are distinguished by their sports teams and stadiums.
Finn's Twitter avatar is former Twins star Kent Hrbek. He once dedicated a song at Lollapalooza to former Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski. His songs are dotted with references to sports teams from his home state of Minnesota -- the Golden Gophers, the Twins, references that need no explanation.
"You tour around as a musician, it's really become similar," Finn said. "When you read [Jack] Kerouac about the '40s and '50s in America, about [what a] crazy different place Denver was," Finn said. "Now it's not really that different. Sports is still our regional thing. You can connect on that. I meet somebody from Wisconsin and you have this Vikings vs. Green Bay thing. Even if you're on opposing sides."
Finn watched the great Steelers-Cardinals Super Bowl in Australia. He watched the awful Bears-Colts Super Bowl in Oslo. He watched last year's Packers-Steelers Super Bowl in England.
I looked at Finn's tour schedule this week, and I noticed that in the days before this year's Super Bowl, he will perform in Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Omaha; in the days after, he will perform in Iowa City, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, St. Louis and Kansas City. He will perform 10 times in 11 nights. His one day off is Super Bowl Sunday -- and the night before that, he will be in his hometown of Minneapolis. I don't know if that is a coincidence. But I suspect, as Finn tours in support of an album about being alone, he'll be happy that he gets to watch America's favorite sporting event with friends and family.