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Private universe

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.

The first of the records waltzed into the spotlight with untried enthusiasm, riding on the reputation of Finn's contribution to Split Enz; the 1985 eponymous debut cast a sufficiently wide net with its first two singles, the wistfully melancholic "Don't Dream it's Over" and the irritatingly frothy "Something So Strong," thus establishing Crowded House as an accessible pop act geared for heavy rotation. But the buried single, the darkly wrenching "World Where You Live," and other cynical cuts--"Mean to Me" and "Hole in the River," for starters--stood as much better examples of Finn's melodic dexterity as well as his more brooding confessional nature, one possibly too smart and confrontational for the legions.

In fact, those early Crowded House fans hoping for more radio-friendly pap upon the release of the second album, Temple Of Low Men (1988) would be sorely tested; Temple is rife with heavier themes of faithlessness, betrayal, and revelation, in tandem a darkly evocative slice of traditional pop. Buoyed by the success of the first record, perhaps the band felt the freedom to run the ball in a more interesting direction: "Into Temptation" takes you down a frighteningly realistic path to infidelity; "Mansion in the Slums" points a wry finger at the prospect of selling out; "In the Lowlands" paints a picture of proverbial, pastoral chaos. Amazing songs, and so, of course, Crowded House's chance of topping the U.S. charts was sabotaged.

Then Woodface, this one with Finn's older brother Tim on board to share songwriting duties, hit three years later with renewed confidence; the record's quick ricochets between ready-made hits ("Chocolate Cake"), cathartic longing (the sad and sophisticated "All I Ask") and aural sport ("Whispers and Moans," boasting one of the most satisfying guitar riffs since the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride"), essentially split the difference between the first two records. Besides denting the charts with "Chocolate Cake," surely the goofiest song on an album otherwise brimming with great cuts, Woodface steered the band away from its dwindling college-alt crowd and toward a more mellow, if not appreciative, Triple-A radio format. It seemed that the jury was in, the bets collected: Neil Finn would go down in the books as an inarguably gifted songwriter, a magnetic performer committed to warmly polished live sets, the moody shepherd of a cult following--but he would never be a bona fide rock star. Ah, the fate of a misunderstood great.

Which may explain the tone of the band's 1993 farewell offering, Together Alone. "It's my favorite Crowded House record that we made," Finn admits. "It was received really well back home and in England and Europe, but in America it was the victim of apathy and the record company not knowing what to do with it." The album is, in essence, the work of a man, of a band, that has resigned itself to respectable obscurity, which often means that--free of commercial pressure--the most personal, fascinating material finally breaks the surface.

Together Alone is a study in uncensored moodiness. Chilling, organic, watery, with one foot in New Zealand mythology and one in unsettling sensuality, it stands completely apart from the Froom-produced albums: a living, breathing animal that's washed up on the shore and heaves wearily toward civilization. "Maybe it took a couple of listens, and that's a hard call these days, to get people to listen to something more than once," Finn sighs. Too bad: Boasting gems such as "Fingers of Love," "Private Universe," and "Walking on the Spot," the album bared Finn's skill and soul at their most immediate.

Together Alone didn't sell. It was one of the signs pointing to needed change; the trio strained further after the release of a best-of album, the retrospective angle feeling more like a nail in the coffin than a perspective-freshener. Capitol released the band from further obligation. As of this writing, Seymour is traveling and playing music with his brother Mark (of Hunters and Collectors); Hester hosts an Australian variety show.

In the interim of 1995, the Finn brothers quietly recorded and released a record, simply titled Finn--an assortment of rounded, mystic-sounding pop and folk tunes that aptly distilled the co-Finn songwriting machine and stayed well away from commercial concerns. The record was a safe, fraternal weigh station for two musicians trying to figure out what should happen next. For Tim, it came in the form of a new wife and baby, pushing music to the back burner for a while. For Neil, it meant finally striking out on his own. "I'm enjoying not having to make decisions by committee anymore," he says. "I'm in charge of my own destiny this way."  

Even without the crutches of his brother, longtime bandmates, a major label, or producer Froom, Try Whistling This---recorded in four months in both Finn's home studio in Auckland, New Zealand, and Philip Glass' studio in Manhattan for the small Work label--proves that Finn has carried the goods all along. The best cuts sound like full-circle proof of his pedigree. Pop music just doesn't get more beautiful than the record's namesake tune, betraying Finn's ongoing cynical-romantic condition; the fluid, pulsing seduction so insidious throughout "Dream Date" puts an exotic spin on things; "Faster than Light" pulls its trump card at its tension-meets-resolution chorus, evoking the best craftsmanship in Finn's repertoire. The songs Finn approaches as fun-with-audio are the ones that fail him: "Sinner" and "Twisty Bass" suffer an uncharacteristic loss of heart, buried beneath studio tricks and techno-veneer.

Still, the record takes a respectable place in the chronology of Finn's career, one that shows no signs of slowing. In a perfect world, Finn says, "I would continue to make albums and tour without losing money, and now and again, a song that jumps on the radio would be nice." A truly modest request from one so deserving.

Neil Finn performs August 22 at Deep Ellum Live.


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