Don't dream it's over

Former Crowded House frontman Neil Finn still writes songs than can stun you with their beauty.

Published September 30, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

When Crowded House hit the charts in 1986 with "Don't Dream It's Over," a pop song with a melody as bracing as the wind, something in the familiar sound, a sensibility, anchored it in your jaded soul. On a second listen, wry fatalist William Burroughs seemed to have slipped a stanza into the three-minute tune.

Now I'm towing my car
There's a hole in the roof
My possessions are causing me suspicion
But there's no proof.

The existential jolt in the chart topper signaled just one of the marvels of the New Zealand trio's debut album. With songwriter and singer Neil Finn at the controls, the album featured 10 more catchy songs about distant fathers, lying poets, star-struck fans, black days, cold winters, tombstones, saints and the singer's "auntie," who goes the way of Virginia Woolf: "Left her car by the river, left her shoes beside." Clearly, Finn was an extraordinary songwriter. The pop hooks and harmonies, rock beats and rhythms, and his own ingratiating voice -- fearless, wistful, cynical, tender -- never struck a false emotional chord.

Crowded House released three more magnificent albums before folding the tent in 1996. Since then, Finn, now 46, stretched his skills even further with two solo works, "Try Whistling This" and "One All." Last month, he and his older brother Tim (erstwhile leader of Split Enz, New Zealand's top '80s new-wave draw) released the enchanting "Everyone Is Here." On the album, Neil turns down the volume on his angst and dovetails with his brother's more somber nature. Yet as Finn's voice carves a searing melody above a swaying rhythm, fleshed out by acoustic guitars and chiming piano in "A Life Between Us" -- "And we're staring at each other/ Like the banks of a river/ And we can't get any closer" -- you have to grin at Neil's parlous musical phrases. Few songwriters can make pop music sound like such poetry.

Finn has earned his share of critical praise over the years. But not to the extent that he deserves. To mass audiences, he remains frozen in time with Crowded House, a one-hit wonder, a stereotype reinforced by retro media like VH-1 and lite-rock radio stations. Since his days in Crowded House, countless musical trends have driven him from the spotlight, and not just silly ones like prancing boy bands. As the '90s dawned, Public Enemy's riveting hip-hop claimed our attention, as did the sweet, soulful, desperate punk of Nirvana. When rock failed to satisfy, the stripped-down country music of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Lucinda Williams filled the bill.

Lost in the march of pop music over the past two decades has been not only Finn but also the kind of exquisite song craft that he embodies. Rock evolved not just from Muddy Waters and James Brown but also from pop formalists like Barry Mann and Carole King, the 1960s Brill Building stars who were themselves indebted to George Gershwin and Cole Porter. This is the tradition that Finn has inherited, honored and translated into songs that stun us with their sophistication and beauty.

In Finn's homeland New Zealand, though, his career is another story. His celebrity stature is second only to that of a handful of rugby players and "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson. Visiting New Zealand not long ago, and walking through the town square in Wellington, I had to smile as I strolled by a busker, singing -- really well, I should add -- Crowded House's "Weather With You." All of Down Under, in fact, reveres Finn. Crowded House's farewell concert was held in a packed amphitheater next to the Sydney Opera House.

Similarly, pop musicians' eyes lights up when talking about Finn. In spring 2001, he invited some of his favorite artists to New Zealand to form a temporary band and play a selection of his songs at a concert in Auckland. They all gladly made the trip, including Johnny Marr, Eddie Vedder and Ed O'Brien from, respectively, the Smiths, Pearl Jam and Radiohead. You couldn't name many rock bands from the past two decades with more passion and integrity.

All of this may sound impressive. But it doesn't capture what is incredibly special about Finn. That's the problem with writing about a favorite pop musician; it all begins to sound like rock criticism, a literary form that's run its course, like English Tudor farce or Sting. Or so it seems. In truth, saying so is my attempt to shed the skin of what has already been written about Finn.

From the moment that "Don't Dream It's Over" topped the charts, his work has been clouded by comparisons to Beatles tunes. That a mass audience heard the influence of Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the hit song was understandable. That people expected every other Crowded House song to replicate the hit's hook, and when it didn't -- Finn wasn't about to write "Don't Dream It's Over, Pt. II" -- wrote off the band as another Beatles wannabe, was also predictable.

The mystery is how Finn got to be such a fantastic songwriter. He grew up in a close family -- Tim and two sisters -- in Te Awamutu, a farming community of 7,000. His mother was an amateur pianist, his father an accountant for sheep and cattle farmers. Both were fans of Big Band music, which the Finn siblings absorbed. "My childhood was quite removed from cities and quite naive for that reason," Finn once told me in an interview. "I look back and it all seems very rose-tinted: playing cricket, riding bikes around in sunshine and mounds of dirt all day."

Tim was the rebellious one, taking off for Auckland to play in rock bands, experiencing his first dram of success with Split Enz. Teenage Neil, emulating his brother, learned the guitar and piano and listened to the usual batch of Beatles and Rolling Stones. He later said it was listening to David Bowie's "Hunky Dory" that first awakened him to the craft of writing soulful, lyrical pop.

Finn's gift for pop first surfaced in the late '70s, when he joined Split Enz. With Neil in the band, and over the course of seven albums, Split Enz evolved from sounding like teenage fans of Genesis (when Peter Gabriel used to wrap his head in a giant papier-mâché flower) to a crisp rock band, proud of its infectious hooks. Neil wrote Split Enz's lone American hit, "I Got You."

By the time he got to Crowded House, Finn was in full command of his talents. Unlike most pop, and like a lot of classical music, his songs renew themselves with each listen. Polychromatic, full of motion and energy, they shift tempos like animated conversations -- although the talks can get a little grim. "Don't stand around like friends at a funeral," Finn sings in "Never Be the Same" from Crowded House's second album, "Temple of Low Men," a smoldering rhythm building behind him. "It could've been you."

Never mind his lyrics for a moment. There's a minatory undertow in Finn's music itself. Crowded House producer Mitchell Froom, ex-husband of Suzanne Vega, and the guiding force of recent Richard Thompson albums, once told me that one of the things seldom acknowledged about Finn is how incredibly dark he is, exposed by his addiction to minor keys. Lisa Germano also performed with Finn at the 2001 Seven Worlds Collide concert. In an interview on the DVD, she says, "It was so intense. We all had to learn like 50 songs. And being a fan, I thought I knew them. And when I got the list of what to figure out, I'd go, 'Oh, I know that song.' Then I'd get on the keyboard and all his songs are in D-flat and E-flat and A-flat -- all the black keys. And I don't do black keys."

In every Finn song, you sense a shrewd musician at work. You sense he has sought and found the perfect chord and instrument to express each idea and emotion. It's what Yeats meant when he said that a successful poem will "come shut with a click, like a closing box." Listen to "It's Only Natural" from Crowded House's third album, "Woodface," and the world all of a sudden makes sense in a three-minute pop song. It's a fantastic feeling and why you wouldn't want to try to parse the song for meaning. You'd be puzzled by the contiguity of chords and lines like "shaking like mud/ building of glass." Only as a whole does "It's Only Natural," one of Finn's best songs, endlessly bloom in your heart.

As a lyricist, Finn is a musician first. He once told Mojo magazine that he often chooses words purely for their euphony. "Initially, I get just a natural image like sky, sea, sun, earth and then something very domestic like washing," he said. "The juxtaposition of those things is endlessly interesting." That acute eye on quotidian reality, the snapshot of mundane possessions, charged with vertigo, is in fact one of his signatures. You have to love this couplet in "Weather With You," which almost sounds like a lullaby: "There's a small boat made of china / Going nowhere on the mantelpiece."

"It's like working with clay," Finn said of writing lyrics. "You've just got to mould the words until they fit the type of rhythm and meter of the song really well. That's where the craft comes in." And Finn is a clever craftsman. Let your mood downshift in the dusk one evening and the next thing you know a line you've heard a hundred times floors you.

In the deceptively gentle ballad "Into Temptation," from "Temple of Low Men," the singer confesses to being smitten with another woman. By surprise, he meets her one day, offering: "You in your new blue dress, taking away my breath." He never acts on his desire, though, offering: "The guilty get no sleep/ In the last slow hours of morning." The meaning of that couplet is hard to miss. But the other day, in one of those clarion moments, I heard for the first time the last line of the chorus, which blends so seamlessly into the song's subtle orchestration: "Safe in the wide open arms of hell." Such a wonderful contradiction, so true.

Finn's finest accomplishments are his melodies. They take your hand, take you out for an evening stroll, make you fall in love, and there's no telling why. I'm thinking, in particular, of "Better Be Home Soon" from "Temple of Low Men" and "Fall at Your Feet" from "Woodface." As American composer Aaron Copland once wrote, "Why a good melody should have the power to move us has thus far defied all analysis." Great melodies tap into some unconscious song that we were born singing. Still, Copland wrote, X-ray a melodic backbone and you'd find that "melodies, like sentences, often have halfway stopping places, the equivalent of commas, semicolons and colons in writing."

I might compare Finn's melodies to Raymond Chandler's sentences, and not only for their perfect pitch and fluency. Like the great Los Angeles writer, Finn is the kind of romantic who would never admit that he is one. Behind his acerbic view is one always striving to protect some unsteady ideal or natural beauty. Bad songwriters look only inward; good ones find emotional correlatives in the world outside them. Finn's songs are bursting with moonlight, tall trees and volcanoes; in his determination to sing phrases that belong only to him, he gives us a "cumulo nimbus coming in from the distance," and "the straw daylight desire," an odd image he follows with, "I wrote that, some Eskimo gave me the line."

Finn invariably shapes his anxious sense of fleeting beauty into songs about New Zealand itself, the "land of the long white cloud," its natural heritage threatened by modernity -- sprawl, consumerism and violence. New Zealand springs radiantly and wistfully to life on Crowded House's fourth album, "Together Alone," recorded in a remote country house on Kare Kare Beach (where "The Piano" was filmed), featuring Maori drumming on the title track and the haunting voices of the Te Waka Huia Cultural Group Choir on others. Finn's talents merge on the album's cathartic "Fingers of Love," my favorite of his songs. An electric guitar line snakes through a bed of acoustic guitars, a simple rhythm churning in the distance. "I hear the endless murmur of every blade of grass that shivers in the breeze," Finn sings. "And the sound that comes to carry me/ Across the land and over the sea."

When's Finn's solo albums, "Try Whistling This" and "One All," were released in America in, respectively, 1998 and 2002, they landed so far afield of the marketplace -- major record stores, radio play, media interviews -- that you practically had to travel to New Zealand to find them. While on first listen they may not sound as accessible as Crowded House, they represent in every way a culmination of Finn's talents. For one thing, "Try Whistling This," the title track, shows off his wit, as it can be interpreted as a cheeky repudiation of his image as a simple pop songwriter. In fact, the predominantly modal tune, awash in the moody keyboards and minimalist rhythms of Phillip Glass (it was recorded in Glass' New York studio), is a plea by the songwriter to a former lover to remember him, as these "words are ringing in your ears," and the words do ring, unforgettably.

I wish I could tell you the new album, "Everyone Is Here," represents Finn at his best. An affecting sonata, it lacks the symphony of his talents so evident on Crowded House's "Together Alone" and his solo album "One All." If you haven't listened to those two albums lately, or ever, listen to them now. They sound timeless and timely, the work of a masterful songwriter, a poet, forever restless.

"I could go at any time," Finn sings in "One All." Yes, death is the mother of beautiful pop music. The melody soars, his voice right behind. "There's nothing safe about this life."

By Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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