Private universe

Neil Finn has moved out of the Crowded House and gone exploring

In this attention-deficit culture, a songwriter can't afford to throw his audience too many challenging bones without scaring them away. Ask Neil Finn. He knows, because he is one of the great singer-songwriters of our time. He knows, because his rich, roiling songs--brimming with some of the sharpest hooks, the most beautifully woven harmonies, the most romanticized lyrics out there (not to mention his wonderfully clear and gentle tenor)--somehow managed to waft over the heads of so many. A decade ago, fronting Crowded House, he was this close to becoming a household name. Not surprisingly, it never happened.

That he is a solo act now is hardly a shock, then--this way, he can take the credit and the blame all by himself, with no brother or bandmates around to get in his way. Whether this career move puts Finn on a fresh path to renewed visibility is up in the air; that his new solo album will please the faithful herd is unquestionable. Just as we suspected all along, the strongest, the darkest, the most fascinating matter that sprung from the Crowded House kitchen was cooked up by Neil Finn. And Try Whistling This, his debut as a lone ranger, carries on his reign as prince of melody with careful, updated progression.

"Making a record is always a bit of a journey," says the touring Finn, over the phone from a Minneapolis hotel (he still lives in his native New Zealand). "You don't know how it's gonna turn out until you finish it--you might make a plan, but often as not that plan gets left off to the side, and real life takes over. But I think it's a characterful record." (Whatever characterful means--perhaps it's Newzealandish.)

Not so much relaxed as reserved (much like Finn himself in interview), Try Whistling This attempts to break from the sonic stamp that was beginning to make Crowded House sound like a band forever trapped in its undulating, self-made box; at the same time, thankfully, it never comes off as the misguided project of a veteran musician who suddenly wants to join the trip-hop club. Sure, the new songs employ samples, loops, younger musicians (including Finn's 14-year-old son, Liam), cutting-edge producers (such as Nigel Godrich of Radiohead's OK Computer); but the 40-year-old Finn knew that simply working with a new creative team would go a long way toward shaking things up.

"It certainly broadens your horizons to play with somebody who's got a different aesthetic--it brings out new and unexpected things in yourself," he says. "I don't feel like it's 'Neil and a bunch of session guys.' It's the process of working with new people."

The end result is 13 songs that, while mostly faithful to Finn's gift for goose-bump-inducing melody and lyrics, also tentatively set foot in new territory--at least for Finn. While the fresh injection of here-and-now elements sometimes distract from the record's true gold mine, its melodic underpinnings, this isn't the final product of a career--it's a precarious beginning.

Promising, but not there yet. Even Finn seems to sense this.
"I may have ventured into some radical areas where it wasn't so much melody as it was atmosphere or rhythm-generated," he says. "Although it was thrilling, I didn't feel an emotional connection to it. I was always looking for a more melodic center to the whole thing. I don't know any other way of writing music or feeling good about it unless it's got some kind of melodic center."

That melodic center has been Finn's calling card since the beginning. He found his public legs in the late '70s at age 18 by giving his older brother Tim's band, Split Enz, the timely and tight (if not slightly menacing) pop songs that took the eccentric art-rock group beyond its long-standing Down Under fame and, by the early '80s, into MTV's newly glowing spotlight. "One Step Ahead of You," "I Got You," and "History Never Repeats"--near-perfect as youthful assault-turned-homage to Beatles-esque sensibility--were merely harbingers of Finn's natural decision to form and front his own band, Crowded House. He enlisted friends and ex-bandmates Paul Hester and Nick Seymour, the three making up a core unit that lasted nearly a decade.

Stateside, Crowded House hit the charts with a solid bang, only to end up one of the most misunderstood, if not underappreciated, bands of the late '80s and early '90s. Their label, Capitol, though initially determined to launch Finn's new band, had a hand in the growing confusion.

"The Capitol thing was a combination of circumstances," he says. "Not the least being that every time we put a record out there was a different president and different regime--there was no consistency. They lost the sense of direction about how to market us. We saw ourselves getting less and less here, and at the same time getting more and more in other parts of the world."

But Capitol's flakiness was only part of the trouble. The other part was the music itself. The first three Crowded House records, all produced by Mitchell Froom--master of layered atmosphere and detailed sonic textures--were as cohesive as they were discordant. Swallowed together, they show the impressive scope of Finn's songcraft and clearly mark the evolution of his distinctive style; separately, they came off like slightly alienated brothers with conflicting motives, winning new and shrugging off old listeners with each turn.

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