When Crowded House began two and a half decades ago, they were a minor offshoot band from the quirky and cultish Split Enz and, by industry standards, a dead certainty to attract even less of an audience than the group that spawned them. Still, Capitol signed them (when they were calling themselves The Mullanes) but didn’t see any potential in the group, which made them a low promotional priority, even at home in New Zealand. The band’s first two singles did moderately well on the NZ charts and little to nothing in the U.S., but “Don’t Dream It’s Over” took the top slot at home and broke the band big in America, with the single climbing all the way to Billboard’s No. 2 position and paving the way for Crowded House’s international success.
Although Crowded House has never repeated the massive commercial response that (eventually) greeted their eponymous debut and its most exalted single (“Don’t Dream It’s Over” was voted the seventh greatest Australian song of all time), the album and song perfectly teed up the band’s subsequent work. The residuals from the massive first album allowed Crowded House to experiment freely on everything that came after, from the low-key melancholy of Temple of Low Men to the wonderfully skewed Woodface to the artfully cool Together Alone.
After the band’s 1996 dissolution, frontman/creative spark plug Neil Finn focused on his solo career and continued working with his brother Tim in various projects. The suicide of founding drummer Paul Hester finally spurred Finn to reconnect with bassist Nick Seymour and Crowded House reunited three years ago to record their fifth album, the elegantly mournful Time on Earth, originally slated to be Finn’s next solo album but retooled as a band effort.
Even before Hester’s tragic exit, Neil Finn was counterpointing his deepest sorrows and anxieties with the most gorgeous melodies. It’s only made sense that Finn’s found inspiration in The Beatles; McCartney’s effervescent light and Lennon’s brooding dark exist side by side within him, and there are moments on Intriguer, Crowded House’s sixth album, that Finn sounds like he’s in the throes of his Sgt. Pepper and White Album phases simultaneously (“Falling Dove,” “Inside Out”).
Finn and his House (Seymour, drummer Matt Sherrod, multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart) weave a fascinating sonic tapestry on Intriguer, with psychedelic swirls and swells bubbling up through the band’s exquisite Pop balladry and coming together in perfectly unexpected ways. Finn has always been an impassioned writer and performer, but the combination truly comes to a head on Intriguer, as his flawless sense of Pop melodicism crashes headlong into his freewheeling experimentalism with all of it tempered by his bruised maturity and hard-won wisdom, epitomized in the album’s opening track and first (and decidedly unsingle-like) single, “Saturday Sun.”Finn proved long ago that he can toss off an obvious Pop masterpiece at will, and as a result he paints in subtler shades, evidenced by the atmospheric Pop of “Amsterdam” and the brilliant R.E.M.-meets-Procol Harum shimmer of “Isolation” (a duet with his wife Sharon). And while Finn may be singing about love in “Twice If You’re Lucky,” you can hear the echoes of a guy who’s grateful for success in two highly respected bands and a solo career in lines like, “In the course of a history, hey/It all makes sense to me somehow” and “As if we create something magical, honey/There are times that come/These are times that come/Only once in your life/Or twice if you’re lucky.” I’m pretty sure that’s skill on your end, Neil; we’re the lucky ones.
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