Tagged: Tim Finn

Crowded House: Dreamers Are Waiting

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

Response to Queensland Theatre’s Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on!”I remember the first time I heard those words. It wasn’t in high school or university, but in a song from 1987 called Eat The Rich, a song written by the British heavy metal band Motörhead specifically for the film of the same name.

The song was full of double entendres and cheap innuendo. “They say music is the food of love / Let’s see if you’re hungry enough!” were the opening lines, gargled by the late Lemmy Kilmister, whose lyrics deftly trod Spinal Tap’s famous fine line between clever and stupid.

I’m not sure how I have managed to almost entirely avoid Shakespeare, despite a life devoted to words and music. The sum total of my experience was a reading (not a performance) of Hamlet, in year 11. It is, frankly, an embarrassing gap for a writer.

When Queensland Theatre invited me to respond to their production of Twelfth Night, I was intimidated, and my instinctive response was ‘no’. Then I realised I was being offered a challenge and a belated opportunity to engage with something beautiful.

The other selling point was musical: Tim Finn, whose early work as a member of Split Enz had been forever imprinted on my brain, would supply the food of love for the play, composing music for Shakespeare’s old verses as well as a suite of original new songs.

These songs draw mainly on two musical forms: English folk and, in the play’s second half, stomping glam rock – particularly its most androgynous purveyors, David Bowie and Roxy Music, both clear influences on the work of Split Enz.

That androgynous element is important, for Twelfth Night is especially resonant today. It’s a romantic farce, full of suggestion and double entendre, and its comedy rests on multiple mistaken identities and cross-dressing, as well as delicious wordplay.

Beneath the laughter lies deep melancholy. The shipwreck that separates twins Viola and Sebastian, and the loss of Olivia’s father and brother, creates a sense of mourning: Viola (as Cesario) warns Orsino that Olivia is “so abandoned to her sorrow” that she fears she will not be admitted into her court. Orsino is insistent, telling Cesario to “be clamorous and leap all civil bounds, rather than make unprofited return.”

In one of Tim’s songs written to complement the original text, he compares their love to an abandoned building: “No one lives there anymore”. Yet Orsino, Viola and Olivia are all stricken with unrequited longing for those whose hearts are set on others. In Viola’s words, they love “with adoration, fertile tears, with groans that thunder.”

The heart wants what it wants, and “love is love” are words we have heard many times in these last 12 months. As we have grappled with the concept that gender and sexuality might not be fixed identities, but exist somewhere on a spectrum, so Twelfth Night was ripe for reinterpretation.

On this theme, Tim makes one of his finest contributions, Keeping Up – a song sung by Feste, Olivia’s resident court jester, after he may, or may not have identified the male Cesario as the female Viola:

Once upon a time it was clear

Who I was and how I got here

Now I’m not so sure anymore

The new normal

Seems a bit queer

The song acknowledges the temporary social seasickness caused by rapidly changing social mores. I found myself wondering if some of our most conservative commentators have ever asked themselves Feste’s question: “Am I confused, or simply annoyed?”

Feste himself is not quite the fool he appears: he understands that ch-ch-changes could end up leaving men like him behind. Mostly, though, he is too busy enjoying himself to be annoyed by anything – unlike Malvolio, Olivia’s insufferably pompous steward.

Here lies this production’s most provocative twist: Malvolio is re-cast as Malvolia. Her pursuit of Olivia gives Twelfth Night another layer, not just of same-sex attraction but also tension and, ultimately, betrayal: “she hath been notoriously abused,” Olivia says.

Her star turn, singing Lady Ho Ho, is the play’s most outrageous moment. Quivering with pent-up desire in her yellow cross-gartered stockings, her over-the-top attempt to seduce Olivia is doomed by Olivia’s disinterest as well as by Maria’s cruel device.

Tracy Grant Lord’s set design depicts the fictitious land of Illyria as an island under a celestial night sky, revolving through different exterior and interior landscapes that are like chambers in the hearts of the island’s occupants.

Australia is an island, too: “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ve boundless plains to share” – or so our anthem says. Our debates can be petty and mean-spirited. As a people, though, I don’t believe we are, at least not when given the chance to be our best selves.

Australia’s LGBTIQ community made clear they felt deeply betrayed by last year’s postal survey on marriage equality.

Having long been victims of notorious abuse themselves, they were subjected to a national vote that struck at their core as human beings. They saw it as another cruel device to prevent them from loving who they pleased as equals under the law.

Yet, presented with no alternative, Australians rallied behind them, resulting in marriage equality being signed into law before Christmas of 2017. It was a significant moment in our polity which showed the public to be far ahead of party-political games.

In the process, leaders and heroes emerged on our national stage. Some, you might say, were born great; some achieved greatness; while others duly had greatness thrust upon them.

Twelfth Night is a joyous play. Everyone is searching and longing for love and companionship. Even Malvolia, after vowing vengeance “on the whole pack of you”, is entreated to a peace. And music, being the food of love, ultimately binds them all together.

So, let’s see if you’re hungry enough. Play on!

Responding artist’s note to Queensland Theatre’s Twelfth Night, 2 May 2018