You Could Say Crowded House Are Back, Though They Never Really Went Anywhere

A Neil Finn song is a Neil Finn song, and excited as Crowded House fans might be about the band's re-formation after 13 years, their new album, Time on Earth, and a concert tour, we haven't really been deprived in the meantime of Finn's songwriting gift. Thirty summers ago, he joined his brother Tim's band Split Enz, and he's been working steadily since, forming Crowded House in that band's wake and releasing two solo albums and two with Tim (plus a compilation or two) since the group broke up—or, rather, went on hiatus.

Time on Earth's lineup now includes founding member Nick Seymour; Mark Hart, who joined for their previous studio album, 1993's Together Alone; and new drummer Matt Sherrod. Their original drummer, Paul Hester, quit in the middle of their 1994 tour but rejoined the group for a '96 farewell concert held, with a flamboyant sense of occasion, on the steps of the Sydney Opera House (recently released on DVD with lots of extra interviews and documentary concert footage, including shots of a Seattle gig at what looks like the Showbox).

Hester killed himself in 2005, and Time on Earth, dedicated to him, is naturally somber and introspective, with no really driving, up-tempo songs from Finn, and no evocations of his homeland of New Zealand, the spacious outdoorsiness which colors Together Alone and 1995's Finn. In its spareness and the faintly raw up-front-ness of Finn's vocals, it more closely resembles Finn's 1998 solo album, Try Whistling This, than it does earlier Crowded House work. His lyrics, as ever, are lovely but allusive/elusive, ready to admit multiple readings, though many of them, of course, seem to refer to Hester. Surprisingly, the song that does so most overtly, "She Called Up," is also the album's jauntiest: "She called up and gave me the news/It made me so sad, sad, sad/There was nothing I could do.../And you had to leave/I can never repay you/For what you gave to me." Complementing these lyrics is a chorus with an oddly whistleable, completely unsyncopated minor-key tune—which, if you picked it out on the piano with one finger and asked someone who wrote it, they might guess was some 19th-century pops number, maybe one of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances.

(Speaking of interpreting lyrics: I've never understood why, with all its mid-'80s ubiquity, "Don't Dream It's Over," Crowded House's biggest chart hit, never became a gay anthem: "Hey now, hey now, don't dream it's over/Hey now, hey now, when the world comes in/They come, they come to build a wall between us/We know they won't win." The chorus, at least, would serve; it'd be hard to put a political spin on a verse like "Now I'm towing my car, there's a hole in the roof/ My possessions are causing me suspicion but there's no proof.")

But what everyone most admires and praises about Finn's songs are his tunes. They're too heartfelt and affecting to be dismissed as hooks, too weightless and unself-conscious to be labeled with a theatrical term like "soaring." (That was Tim's department.) His choruses especially—regardless of the song's mood or tempo—seem to float over everything, self-propelled, only touching down at the end of a phrase, making a graceful, exhilarating arch. It's a quality, a fingerprint almost, that goes all the way back to "I Got You," Finn's first Split Enz hit, and gems like "Message to My Girl" (which could be thought of as an early Crowded House song, in the way that "Hello Goodbye" is kind of an early Wings song). Two particularly buoyant examples from Together Alone are the four-bar phrases that go with the words "I will run for shelter, endless summer, lift the curse" from "Private Universe" and "She's gone, vanished in the night, broke off the logic of life" from "Catherine Wheels" (co-written with Tim and Seymour).

If Crowded House fans ask, "Why aren't they bigger?" the question re Finn's songs is, "Why aren't they covered?" (Garth Brooks could have made $10 million from "Better Be Home Soon.") For me, Together Alone has been a desert-island disc since it came out. The names of songwriters who can match Finn's quality, consistency, and longevity would make a very short list.

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