It’s not easy to connect the four albums Crowded House made in their first life (from their formation in 1985 to their dissolution in 1996) to the three released since the traumatic passing of drummer Paul Hester in 2005. Although still the main and most popular vehicle for Neil Finn and original bass player Nick Seymour, there’s a clear musical divide that makes them feel like the works of very different bands.
Which is true, at least up to a point. A crucial part of Crowded House’s identity was lost with Hester besides his deft percussive touch, and that is throwing no shade on drummer Elroy Finn (Neil’s youngest son) or his predecessor Matt Sherrod. Crowded House was never going to be the same after that tragedy, and some of the band’s natural joie de vivre – along with the tightly wound pop hooks and effortless anthems – went with him.
Dreamers Are Waiting is the first Crowded House album since 2010, and the band has expanded to a full-blown family affair. Alongside Elroy, older brother Liam is now a full-time multi-instrumental member, while Tim Finn (whose name last appeared on a Crowded House album on Together Alone, in 1993) gets a co-writing credit on Too Good For This World. Mitchell Froom, who produced the band’s first three albums, replaces Mark Hart on keyboards.
A further scan of the songwriting credits shows Liam has two songs here, Show Me The Way and Goodnight Everyone, which sit squarely in the middle of the album. Love Isn’t Hard At All is a co-write between Elroy and Neil, with Sharon Finn (married to Neil since 1982) on backing vocals. The first two songs, Bad Times Good and lead single Playing With Fire, are group compositions.
Somehow all of it feels seamless, but be warned: as with Time On Earth (2007) and Intriguer (2010), you won’t find anything approaching Don’t Dream It’s Over here, or anything that sounds much like the Crowded House Generation X grew up with. Like Neil Finn’s sometimes esoteric solo work, these songs – a dozen, all less than four minutes – are more detailed, more subtle, and take more time to reveal themselves.
But it’s worth making the effort, because the beauty of this record is in the detail and deceptive tonal shifts, like the way Bad Times Good begins with an understated three-line chorus before quietly blending into its first verse. There’s no instant gratification, but like much of Dreamers Are Waiting, the song gets under your skin like an itch you just have to scratch, almost subliminally addictive.
Much of the album is about trying to hold on to hope amid squalor and discord. To The Island could be a paean to the safety of a long-term relationship, or to the Finns’ native New Zealand: “The world is beyond us (shit just got real) / It’s too enormous (fell under the wheel) / But the island is just right / It’s the perfect size,” Neil sings, before the coda pushes the song from a bedtime lullaby into gentle paisley psychedelia.
Playing With Fire is more direct, with Neil excoriating his own age bracket: “The next generation’s talking / We’re behind the wheel / We’re driving straight into the wall,” before concluding “some may say we’ll turn it round / If you believe such a thing, I’ll believe such a thing.” He sounds more fatalistic than optimistic, but it’s a good choice as single, with just a hint of the old snap, crackle and pop of Split Enz, parping horns in the chorus.
And when the next generation is allowed behind the wheel – Liam’s Show Me The Way and Goodnight Everyone – the results are the equal of anything else here, not just in quality but in their hypnotic, edge-of-delirium feel. At these moments, it feels like Crowded House is now less Neil’s vehicle than a multi-headed hydra for this extraordinary musical family. Again, check those credits: you’ll be hard-pressed guessing who’s doing what.
That said, Neil’s name is still the only one on half the tracks here, and it’s that voice, still one of the most sensitive and alluring instruments in pop, leading the way. He’s a little sadder, and world-wearier, but his craft is as good as ever. Sweet Tooth is the nagging pop nugget its title suggests, the closest thing here to a vintage Crowded House song, while the final track, Deeper Down, indulges one of his favourite lyrical obsessions: a place to hide.
That’s what makes this, in the end, still a Crowded House record. It doesn’t just retain the intimacy that made them so cherished, but makes it their signature sound. They exist on their own island now: a place to take refuge from the rest of the world, when it all becomes too enormous and terrifying to bear thinking about.
First published in the Guardian, 4 June 2021