You’d be hard pressed to find another pop songwriter with as consistent and engaging a song catalog as Neil Finn. During his days with Split Enz, his songs were cute with a touch of zaniness. While fronting the late, great Crowded House, his songs had hooks so sharp the albums should have come with child safety warning stickers. His solo albums, on the other hand, are a much looser affair. Like 1998’s Try Whistling This, his newest, One Nil, is like a perfectly broken-in couch, comforting and blissful. It is a travesty beyond nature that Crowded House carries the One Hit Wonder tag in America, as they were arguably the best pop band of the last 20 years (that, and the fact that they actually had two Top 40 hits). One Nil may not erase that, but it should raise Finn’s profile somewhat, especially now that Pete Yorn has made the world safe for Adult Alternative again.
Where his earlier work hooked the listener like the demons in Hellraiser, Finn is much more content to sneak in through the back door these days, and the first two tracks epitomize that, almost to a fault. “The Climber”, while lovely, takes a while to get started, and “Rest of the Day Off”, the first single, is one of the weakest singles Finn’s ever released. “Wherever You Are” is much better, a dreamy love song to someone halfway around the world. “Driving Me Mad” adds a touch of New Orleans thanks to the shuffle rhythm and accordion fill, but the song itself is pure McCartneyesque pop splendor.
“Turn and Run”, however, is the song that could change Finn’s US fortunes considerably. A duet with Sheryl Crow (a canny move if ever there was one), the heart-wrenching ballad is up there with “Better Be Home Soon” and “Into Temptation” as one of Finn’s finest, with Crow turning in one of the best vocal performances she’s ever given. When this album sees the light of day in the States (currently targeted for May), look for “Turn and Run” to lead the way.
All of this talk of comfy couches and slipping in the back door isn’t to say that Finn has forgotten how to rock. Rather, the later work has shown harder edges than anything he’s ever done. “Loose Tongue”, from Try Whistling This, had a mean guitar riff that Keith Richards would have killed for, and One Nil‘s “Hole in the Ice” is another nasty number with dirty guitar and Finn’s trademark stream-of-consciousness ranting, ala Woodface‘s “Whispers and Moans”. “Elastic Heart” is just plain odd, with a disconnected vocal and no discernible hook. This is clearly from one of those closets in Finn’s head where dirty things are kept that he warned us about in “Love You Til the Day I Die”. Naturally, due to its challenging nature, it’s being replaced with another song on the US release.
Finn continues his penchant for writing about sex without seemingly writing about sex (see “When You Come”, “Fingers of Love”) on “Don’t Ask Why”, a song about doing it without thinking about doing it. “Anytime” shows Finn grappling with mortality and how powerless we all really are over our surroundings. “I could go, anytime / There’s nothing safe about this life”, he sings. Even in his most sincere songs, there is an inescapable undercurrent of paranoia and fear that makes the simplest gesture seem like a last gasp of air.
While One Nil may not have the immediate impact that his work with Crowded House had, to measure it against those records is unfair. Paul McCartney could never write another album’s worth of material like Sgt. Pepper, though he did make Band on the Run. It’s best to approach Finn’s work the same way. He has no desire to reinvent the wheel, but he might put a shiny new hubcap on it.