[27 February 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I have a recording studio, so I’ll be bullshitting on about a solo album for the next ten years.
—Paul Hester, 1996
“We broke up better than anything else we ever did, really,” opines Crowded House leader Neil Finn on one of this set’s several documentaries. So well that 1996’s breakup concert Farewell to the World became Crowded House’s defining moment, even though the Kiwi / Aussie band had been dormant for most of the previous two years. So well, in fact, that they regrouped after working together on this tenth anniversary edition / DVD debut, paradoxically rendering the title obsolete.
But the reunion has very little effect on the viewing and listening pleasures Farewell to the World offers—if anything, it provides the happy ending that many fans felt deprived of a decade ago. For most serious Crowded House fans, however, the happiness is also tinged with the tragedy of the one band member who won’t be taking part in the new album or tour: drummer Paul Hester. Hester committed suicide in March 2005. Though Finn probably didn’t intend it that way, the aching contrast between Hester’s larger-than-life onscreen presence and his literal absence becomes the primary emotional context for the entire experience. You might be able to listen to the CD with a clear mind, but you can’t watch Farewell to the World without thinking about Hester.
Not that the show is a bummer. Rather, it’s triumphant. Crowded House were always a strong live band with a dedicated following, and they basically came across as everyday, average blokes. This combination of muscularity and sincerity was their unique gift, and it’s what allows them to make this show, staged in front of the gorgeous Sydney Opera house before an audience of over 100,000, seem like a secret shared among friends. In terms of combining unabashedly sweet melody with musical and lyrical intellect, Finn is one of the greatest songwriters since Paul McCartney in his prime. Nearly all his most sublime moments are here, too, playing out like an expanded, more gritty version of the Recurring Dream greatest hits compilation. With American session man-turned-band-member Mark Hart adding muscle and virtuosity on multiple instruments, Finn, Hester, and bassist Nick Seymour rev up early uptempo tunes like “Mean to Me” and “Sister Madly”. They are equally adept, though, at re-conjuring the intricate spell of more atmospheric works like “Into Temptation” and “Private Universe”.
Highlights are almost too many to mention. “Pineapple Head” is the quintessence of Finn’s effortless way with a tune and catchy lyric, and it’s rendered live in all its 12-string wonder. “In My Command”, also from 1993’s outstanding Together Alone album, proves that the guys could rock, too. Finn’s brother Tim shows up for a three-song run from 1991’s Woodface, including the cozily exuberant “Weather With You”. As if by fate, the show ends with the ponderous melancholy of “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, rightly described by Finn as “the best last song ever”.
The footage, directed by Julia Knowles, is about as unassuming as the band itself: Close-ups alternate with pan shots; cameras occasionally move across the crowd. Crowded House were not the most dynamic band to watch. Aside from some pitiable “rock’n'roll moves”, the guys are pretty static, with Hart looking especially stoic. But that’s made up for by the unassuming strength of the material and performances, and by the good-natured, often comedic stage banter, of which Hester is the focal point. When he’s not drumming enthusiastically, his elastic face often mugging for the cameras, he’s cracking jokes and wielding a trident. During one unforgettable exchange, Finn tells the crowd that none of the band are actually from Sydney. Hester then exclaims that he’s “deposited a little bit of sperm in Sydney from time to time…there’s bound to be a relative out there somewhere!” Finn laughs and then, looking slightly annoyed, tells Hester, “Look, my family are out there, man.” Without missing a beat, Seymour chimes in with “Probably shared some with them, too.” It’s one of the few bits that winds up on the CD and, as much as any of the songs, it’s a testament to the chemistry and personality at play. When Hester later comes front-and-center for “Sister Madly”, Finn asks him to do some of his own “Italian Plastic”. When Hester obliges, the smart, jangly tune provides one of the show’s unexpected high points.
Just as important to most fans as the show itself will be the 2006 band commentary; featuring Finn, Seymour, and Hart; and mini-documentaries from 1996 and 2006. The commentary is impressive inasmuch as the guys are affable and manage to keep it going throughout the entire show, but is otherwise for diehard fans only. It does offer some hints of Finn’s notorious perfectionism, as he points out each of Seymour’s and Hart’s missed notes. There are kind words for Hester and a few gems, such as Seymour’s comment during “Distant Sun” that “It’s house music…you write a song like that, you go buy a big fuckin’ house.” To get to those, though, you have to suffer through journalist Lawrie Zion’s sycophantic comments and embarrassingly lame questions, which quickly descend to “Did you ever hire a choreographer to help with stage moves?”. Mind, this is Crowded House we’re talking about. The 2006 documentary with Finn and Seymour serves as a preview for the forthcoming reunion album and tour, while the ‘96 material consists of “behind the scenes” footage, newsclips, and interviews in which Finn defends his decision to break up the band at the height of its creativity and popularity while Seymour and Hart claim they still have another good album in them.
This is a thoughtful, well-produced package. You have the songs. You have the performances. And then there are the extras. But really, to get a sense of just what was so special about Crowded House, all you need to do is listen to the end of the commentary. Zion is naming some people who are present in the room, and among them is Lorraine. She is Paul Hester’s dog. She now lives with Finn and his family in New Zealand. “Only Paul would name a dog Lorraine,” Finn says with no small amount of affection.