Crowded House’s Finest Time on Earth

Neil FinnCrowded House officially split up in 1996, drawing the line with a big and long-selling singles retrospective Recurring Dream; their last album proper, the swampy, enchanting Together Alone was to be forever my favourite, slightly ahead of 1991’s hit-laden British breakthrough Woodface, and that appeared to be that. There seemed little prospect of the house lease being extended as frontman and songwriter Neil Finn embarked on the inevitable solo path, releasing 1998’s superb, rewardingly experimental Try Whistling This and its follow-up One Nil, and productively rekindled his partnership with older brother and brief house-guest Tim. But as Finn presciently sang on One Nil’s ‘Anytime’, “There’s nothing safe about this life”.

And indeed this narrative was turned around in 2005, with the dreadful news of the suicide of Crowded House’s excellent drummer and chief jokester, and sometime TV host, Paul Hester.  I well remember the shock when, in a pre-social media foreshadowing of how we’ve largely heard of 2016’s cull of talent, I saw the bald headline amongst the news items on my ISP home page: Crowded House drummer found dead. Shock, but perhaps complete surprise; to an outsider Hester seemed anecdotally to be the embodiment of the charismatic, entertaining but mercurial personality given to extreme highs and lows, and perhaps the troubled subject of the dark, driving rocker ‘Black and White Boy’ on Together Alone. Having been converted like many Brits by the sheer irrepressible class of Woodface, when I finally got to see Crowded House live in the major league setting of Wembley Arena in Spring 1994 Hester was absent, having rancorously quit the band mid-tour to be replaced by the affable Peter Jones, who in a further terrible and macabre twist was himself to die from brain cancer. The band, and Hester in particular, were justly renowned for their hilarious antics and dry patter. (I always chortle on recalling a Woodface-era interview in the wannabe rock muso’s bible Making Music where the band acknowledged their Luddite unfamiliarity with new-fangled samplers and software sequencers. Paul Hester: “I mean, I can’t even type.”) On that night they still entertained; among the customary onstage hi-jinks was the usually reserved, Byronic multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart rising to the occasion with a spot of impromptu nose-piano playing. But the band, if not the largely newbie audience, must have sensed that something fundamental had changed, and the house would empty within the next few years.

When Crowded House’s reformation and a new album were announced a decade later, in the aftermath of the intervening tragedy, it came out of leftfield for me; unanticipated, unaccounted for, seeming even commercially opportunistic and somewhat sacrilegious. My musical attentions at the time were anywhere elsewhere and, perhaps owing to that kneejerk response, on a cursory listen the lead single ‘Don’t Stop Now’ didn’t persuade; it seemed musically unremarkable and with the insular whimsy which had for me occasionally marred One Nil. So I would not have imagined that when the deluxe album reissues were announced earlier this year, Time on Earth would be very firmly at the top of my list. Or that it’s furthermore near the very top of my all-time, all-artists favourite album list.

But the thing is, Time on Earth is surely one of the most beautiful, poignant, and unaffectedly affecting albums ever rendered.

Only the year after its release, in the wake of a binge on Neil Finn’s solo albums, did I finally engage with Time on Earth, and on first impression felt disappointed by its traditional modes of arrangement and production, hoping as I was for more of the drum loops and buzzy analogue synths, and the quirky and expansive productions successfully introduced there. With Time on Earth we are largely back to the dry, organic, often acoustic textures of Woodface, albeit with some of the ambient treatments of its successor Together Alone. But one very quickly appreciates that this aesthetic choice is entirely right, because the songcraft is so incisive and compressed, and the sentiments expressed often so plain and potent, that no ornate decoration serves them.

Time on Earth is now one of my most dearly loved albums, but as we self-styled Eulogizers accept (and psychologists have proved), such extreme value judgements are at least partly informed by our subjective, even subliminal associations. I became properly immersed in Time on Earth on a highly personally significant train journey while a struggling musician aged thirty, en route to a reunion with my archetypal inspirational young schoolteacher, now an airline pilot. I knew our conversation would inevitably be dominated by the extraordinary and somewhat unforeseen musical fame and fortune which had visited our mutual school bandmate in the interim (clue: think of the colour Yellow), and on a melancholic late Autumn day it felt a fitting time to reflect on the curious, capricious nature of our time on earth, if not in its tragic aspect. Then three years later the album further grew in resonance for me when my father passed away, from a terminal illness which had come to a head rather sooner than expected. Whilst not provoking quite the violent shock or guilt and self-reproach that a close friend’s suicide might engender, there was regret at things left unsaid and having perhaps been blasé or in denial about the impending event, and a need to make some sense of it, even to find some kind of enlightenment or renewed purpose from it. And so I returned to and found solace in Time on Earth, whose songs address these very impressions and responses.

For that journey I had ripped the CD to a cheap MP3 player which perversely played album tracks in alphabetical, rather than sequential order. This perhaps meant that I gave each song equal weight as they went by me each time, the most immediate hooks starting sink in, giving that dopamine reward each time they came round; it also left me trying to guess what track was the album opener (though I had a pretty good idea what the closer was). To my later surprise, it is the downbeat and reflective ‘Nobody Wants To’, a bravely unusual and in fact genius choice of opener which perfectly sets the tone for the album. Put simply, ‘Nobody Wants To’ is the kind of sublime composition for which phrases such as ‘heart-tugging chord changes’ were invented. A simple, chiming acoustic guitar figure which announces the uncluttered, back to basics values is soon joined by understated drums, sparse piano motifs and Nick Seymour’s customary mellow-toned, melodic and syncopated bass. Neil Finn has always had, to quote the late Leonard Cohen, the gift of a golden voice, but it has come to acquire a slight underlying rasp which here conveys the wearily wizening experience behind a resolve also to strip things bare emotionally:

“Down on the ocean floor
That’s where I’m heading for
Hold on to a sinking stone
Until the worst is known”

Like much of Time on Earth, ‘Nobody Wants To’ draws some universal point from the specific tragedy which surely inspired it, and here it is an unhealthy inclination to sweep underlying emotional issues under the mat, to retreat into our postmodern, consumerist caves. Nobody wants to think, or talk, about it, whatever “it” that insidious, corrosive issue might be. In the past Finn’s inclination to be lyrically somewhat opaque, allusive or arch, as if he were himself rather holding back, had very occasionally made me wish for the heart-on-sleeve proclamations of his brother Tim’s (less musically remarkable) albums. So that the directness and candour at times displayed on Time on Earth is bracing, even shocking, in the unexpected manner of Dylan’s new-found vulnerability and fallibility on Blood on the Tracks.

“What you suspected all along, everything he told was wrong. And you can see it if you want. But nobody wants to.” In a sense there is little doubt who the “he” in question is, yet it’s simultaneously any he or she who has been dangerously unforthcoming about their deep troubles and in whose silence you have let yourself be complicit. After this damning lyrical verdict the track plays out in an unhurried and pensive coda, with rueful slide guitar lines and Finn’s abstract expressionist vocalisations, finally landing on the poignantly conclusive major root chord. As others have opined, ‘Nobody Wants To’, in all its quiet power, must rank as one of its creator’s finest works.

Next comes the more upbeat (in both senses) ‘Don’t Stop Now’, which needless to say quickly grew on me, its theme of driving, and its driving beat, going well with a train journey. But the track whose hooks first caught me, in its off-kilter second section later reprised with kooky Continental la-la-la’s, was the deceptively – and I mean deceptively – jaunty ‘She Called Up’, the second single. We now know via the trove on disc two of the deluxe reissue that the song started life as a reggae (even dub) track, and it is enjoyable in that rough demo incarnation, but the final version echoes the jumpy, angular pop of late Split Enz, where Hester first joined Finn, and their debut Crowded House album. This musical reference, conscious or not, serves to sweeten the bitter pill of its subject matter while at the same time underlining it. For the song is the most bald reference to Hester’s suicide on the album. “She called up, and gave me the news”, sings Finn, as if still in chirpy disbelief.  That news, relayed in “a whisper that could blow a chasm wide” and which “pushed apart the mountains and the tide”.  But more than just a morbid transcript of events, ‘She Called Up’ expresses sincere and affecting sentiments of indebtedness and gratitude never expressed, familiar accompaniments to bereavement, and the dimly consoling sense that a tortured soul may have at least found some release: “The hurt that you held so close, there’s something better now.”

Indeed the mixture of melancholy and uplift that is Time on Earth lies in the way its songs variously voice grief and mine memories, as on the slow-building, near-psychedelic rock of the mighty ‘Silent House’ or the foggy Yuletide reminiscence of the gorgeous, string-laden and Sinatra-esque ‘You Are the One to Make Me Cry’, or else try to draw something affirming, even transcendental from it. As does the storming, invigorating ‘Even a Child’, co-written with Johnny Marr and joyously replete with his trademark jangle, which to me is Finn offering a spirited pep talk to one of his co-bereaved (“I want to keep your hopes alive, so where do I begin, to help you believe again?”) but also to himself (“You know I meant it well, but who was it meant to help?”) The only answer for those left standing is to seize the day, and indeed the life, to get out there and grab such singular experiences as “waking up in some foreign town” and hearing its strange and exotic call to prayer. A similar sense of purpose pervades ‘Say It Again’, with its hypnotically chugging pulse and fantastic, enchantingly mystical verses set against a stark, life-or-death refrain (“I know, you’ve got to fight the plan, you’ve got to bend the rules”). Meanwhile there’s not much to say about the folk-meets-fusion of ‘Heaven that I’m Making’, except that I find its fragile yearning, spiritual imagery and transcendent sense of resolve amid surrounding desolation almost unbearably moving.

One song, a standout even among this company, both mourns and rejoices. The elegiac, pastoral ‘English Trees’, with golden 12-string guitars and rustic horns, and its ambivalent structural and harmonic twists, considers the seasons as charted by the garden of Finn’s new English home as both a source of sadness, marking as they do “the passing of time”, but also of affirmation in their endlessly cyclical and rejuvenating qualities (“Summer’s missed you my darling”). Indeed this ambiguity is captured in perhaps the most artfully poetic yet emotionally direct lines of the album:

“England cries and she plays for him
Her chords entwined like a requiem
For though its springtime and summer is new
In Regent’s Park I will mourn for you”

Given the weight of circumstance hanging over Time on Earth it is tempting to assume that all of its weightier songs allude to one individual and to one event. And as another standout-among-standouts kept coming round on my first in-transit listen, a grave, bleak ballad with simple, devastating piano chords, an air of lamentation in its haunting melody and the lyric of a disquieted man countenancing some dramatic redemptive act, I assumed, as have others, that I knew its subject. In fact the haunted figure burdened with the weight of the world in ‘Pour le Monde’ is not Paul Hester, but Tony Blair. Neil Finn is by his own admission a man not generally given to political statements, but just as Peter Gabriel nailed it on his first time out with ‘Biko’, so ‘Pour le Monde’ (from the French anti-Iraq war slogan “For the world, not for the war”) apprehends Blair quite accurately as someone tragically lacking a firm sense of self and thus impelled towards a self-aggrandising crusade: “And he tries to believe that his life has a meaning, with his hand on his heart.” Though driven by pathological zeal and thus not simply America’s poodle (“He is not a dog”), this ardency nevertheless plays to the wishes of the calculating US neocon clique, “the liars” with their “jaded eyes”, who in their hubris “believe their own dark medicine”. Though an uncharacteristic but coruscating and prescient missive on the evolving Iraq disaster, the song also seeks to draw from this global tragedy a similar lesson as from the personal one; remember to feel relatively blessed, and be grateful to be out of the firing line:

“And I wake up blind
Like my dreams were too bright
And I lost my regard
For the good things that I had”

Clocking in at around an hour, Time on Earth is uniquely long for a Crowded House album, indeed perhaps a tad overlong. Of the clutch of somewhat off-topic songs which grace it, I could probably live without the glitzy, celebratory ‘Walked Her Way Down’, good as it is. But the ambient post-rock of the exquisitely delicate ‘A Sigh’ is a welcome mid-album interlude. And the ostensibly incongruous ‘Transit Lounge’, with its nimble funky shuffle and a lyrical take on domestic rancour by turns drily knowing (“Laugh about the time she threw the dinner at you”) and exotically allusive (“In the coconut groves, you can imagine the sound”), does work, serving as engaging light relief, a palate cleanser even, before the deep poignancy of the closing songs.

‘People Are Like Suns’, the contemplative piano-led ballad which ends Time on Earth is somewhat redolent of Finn’s earlier ‘Last Day in June’. But while that lovely song’s metaphysical musings are aired through some decidedly quixotic imagery (“The choir ignites behind me” indeed!), here he develops the apt and intuitively resonant simile of its title (“People are like suns, they are burning up inside”) in a manner which requires little interpretation. So I won’t offer any, except that to observe that, just as it appears the lamentations and lessons of Time on Earth are being finally extrapolated to the very human condition itself, the song draws back in, unexpectedly, to the singular case which has loomed over the album. Unexpectedly, perhaps, even to the song’s composer – for on the stripped-down piano and strings alternative take which is re-aired on the deluxe reissue, the song concludes on a universal, somewhat forlorn note:

“There’s nothing to be gazed upon
Like a brilliant sun
Thought we had a place to play
But I could be wrong”

I don’t know which was recorded first, but I chose to imagine that the album version was the later one, and that on it Finn opted literally to tear up the script; to sing in the moment and from that very “ocean floor”. Because in this take, coming straight out of the big, relatively affirming middle eight, he instead sings:

“It can’t be helped
Doesn’t stop me thinking out aloud
I could have done something”

And then his voice audibly falters while repeating the final refrain, “They come and they go”.

Enough said.

I always appreciated other Crowded House albums as collections of fine but disparate songs, in the vein of pre-Revolver Beatles releases, which coalesced slightly around a particular production style or, in the case of Together Alone, the atmosphere of a location. They don’t seem to explore distinct themes or address a set of concerns, and indeed that idiosyncratic, ‘crowded’ feel is part of their charm. Time on Earth, while itself a superlative set of songs, seems to stand apart and above the rest of Neil Finn’s oeuvre by the artless yet pungent manner in which it distils and unifies two main issues, those of loss and grief and of the potential to become re-enchanted with the world and with living in the moment. The notion, in short, of honouring old memories through making new ones. It is even, as I can attest, something of a toolkit for how to lose and to live on. Finn sings on ‘Say That Again’ that “we live on in the company we keep”. And just as this is demonstrably true of the sorely-missed Paul Hester, so it will be that, short of our planet meeting its own fiery nuclear demise, this timeless album will continue to provide company, consolation and inspiration for many more souls as they try to navigate the bewildering turns of our brief time on earth.