Private Universe: Crowded House Salvages 2010

[4 January 2011]

By Andrew Gilstrap

I don’t try to hide the fact that I’m a total Crowded House fanboy.  Ever since they popped onto the scene in 1986 with pop classics like “Something So Strong”  and “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, I’ve been part of a fiercely loyal group of fans who know that 1) yes, Crowded House are still together, and 2) they didn’t have just “that one song back in the ‘80s”.  Somehow, though, I never got to see them live. Oh sure, I picked up bootlegs whenever I found them.  My evolving Crowded House/Neil Finn mix, “Finntasia”, matured from a threadbare mix tape to a dinged-up mix CD.  Those were also my lean college and post-college years when seeing a show was a luxury. I wasn’t going to see anyone, much less Crowded House. 

When drummer Paul Hester left the band in 1994, Crowded House disbanded in 1996 with a spectacular and poignant farewell show on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. In 2005, Hester committed suicide, and it seemed that the door was truly and finally shut on Crowded House. But then Neil Finn found a solo album turning back into a Crowded House album (2007’s Time On Earth) that introduced new drummer Matt Sherrod. The band then kept going, releasing this year’s Intriguer, and hitting the road. When I saw that they were playing in Atlanta, I jumped on a pair of tickets. I was finally going to go to a Crowded House show.

Without a doubt, their August show at the Tabernacle in Atlanta is my top musical moment of 2010, and not just because I’m such a big fan of the band. At that point in the year, it seemed like the wheel of fortune had rolled on top of me, grinding me under its gears. I was mired in an extended funk that wasn’t helped by the fact that I realized/discovered that I’d betrayed my oldest friend. So as I contemplated career issues and other dilemmas, not to mention pondering the best way to fall on my sword, music lost much of its appeal for me.  I certainly wasn’t in the best frame of mind for a show, even one by a bucket list band.

But you know, maybe that’s one of the reasons you go to a show in the first place: to escape that kind of feeling. For a few hours, Crowded House’s music did what it always does: it took me out of whatever was going on in the real world, and let me find comfort in a private universe of my own devising.  It reminded me that obsessive love of music isn’t something to be ashamed of; it revived me.

The Tabernacle was built to be a church (a role it fulfilled from 1911 to 1994 before becoming a House of Blues for a year or so). It’s been converted to a theatre in the old style, with two high balconies that seem to hang over the stage. Unless you’re sitting behind a pole, there’s hardly a bad seat in the house. 

On this particular night, the venue was maybe three-quarters full, but I learned that there aren’t many casual fans at a Crowded House show. There might be the occasional indulgent spouse or curious onlooker, but for the most part, the crowd consists of diehards. This was evident by the roar that greeted the band as they walked on stage, and in the heartfelt singalongs that accompanied “Four Seasons in One Day”, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, and “Better Be Home Soon”.  It was there in the standing ovation for Finn’s performance of an old Split Enz chestnut, “Message to My Girl”. For a couple of hours, as thick curtains over the stained glass windows blocked the last of the daylight and the noises of the city, it was easy to imagine that this concert was like the members of a far-flung, music-minded tribe had gathered, hidden from the eyes of greater Atlanta. 

Now that the surprisingly perfect sound, surprisingly perfect harmonies of a band in its third decade, and general warm fuzzies from the show have faded, I’ve had time to consider what makes Neil Finn’s songs so appealing to me, and maybe others. Sonically, they’re well-crafted pop gems, and I’ve heard it said that Finn is a bit of a perfectionist in the studio. If that’s the case, he never goes so far that he leeches the life from his records, but I will say (after seeing several broadcasts and finally a show in the flesh) that the songs do gain something—a personable sense of urgency and life—on the stage. That’s a charming group of fellows.

What stands out most about Finn’s work is his dramatic sense of emotions. I feel strange just typing that, since flights of emotion in song usually chafe against my reserved nature (or maybe that’s just the hangover from watching Glee with my wife talking).  It’s not like Finn is simply opening an emo-style vein, though; this all goes through the filter of a well-constructed, often restrained song.  Finn writes songs that subscribe to the belief that love (and its accompanying feelings of lust, despair, and jealousy) is an elemental force that overpowers you and pulls you along. To give in to love is to give into something larger than yourself. 

It’s right there on the band’s first album that “something so strong could carry us away”.  As you go through the catalog, though, the phenomenon becomes more complex.  He feels possessed when a certain someone comes around, for example. “Into Temptation” finds him on the verge of going “into temptation / Knowing full well the Earth will rebel / Into temptation / Safe in the wide open arms of Hell”. He falls at his lover’s feet, and in “Four Seasons in One Day”, he sings “Blood dries up / Like rain, like rain / Fills my cup / Like four seasons in one day”.  In “Nails in My Feet” (one of several songs that make good use of torture imagery) he confesses, “Pass through the walls / Find my intentions / Circle ‘round in a strange hypnotic state”. In “Fingers of Love”, he’s in a state of such heightened awareness that “I hear the endless murmur / Every blade of grass that shivers in the breeze / And that sound that comes to carry me / Across the land and over the sea”. In maybe Finn’s finest magical-realist moment, “Private Universe” reveals, “Every night about six o’clock / The birds come back to the pond to talk / They talk to me, birds talk to me / If I go down on my knees”.

Not all of Finn’s songs are about love, but a lot of them are, and many of the ones that aren’t still seem to have one foot in some sweeping otherworld. There’s danger and reward in Finn’s songs. As he’s gotten older and progressed through more of life’s milestones, his last two Crowded House albums have departed from the template of his earlier work. Time On Earth (2007) wasn’t strictly about Hester’s death, but his absence floats through the album. It’s an album of loss and dignity that was somewhat alien to me when it came out, and my reception to it was a bit cold. It’s scary what a couple of years of life can do.  I now consider it to be one of the band’s best records. 

Their newest, Intriguer, promises the same kind of time-release enjoyment. As John Bergstrom says in his PopMatters review of Intriguer, Finn can pretty much do pretty pop in his sleep by now; he’s moving on to something more intricate—and maybe less earwormy—these days, and that takes a little patience on the part of the listener. Seeing new songs like “Amsterdam” live certainly expanded my appreciation for them. In ten or 15 years, I may greet some of the songs from Intriguer with the same emotion-vested joy that I feel when I hear “Fall At Your Feet”.

On the way out of Atlanta after the show, we stopped at a convenience store for late-night road fuel. Another customer saw my wristband from the show and we talked about how much we’d enjoyed the concert. I’d driven two hours to see the show, but his drive from Charlotte had me beat by another two hours each way.  “I’ve been waiting fifteen years for this,” he exclaimed. Me too, man, me too.

Andrew Gilstrap is a freelance writer living in South Carolina, where he's able to endure the few weeks each year that it's actually freezing (swearing a vow that if he ever moves, it'll be even farther south). Aging into a fine curmudgeon whose idea of heaven is 40 tree-covered acres away from the world, he increasingly wishes he were part of a pair of twins, just so he could try being the kinda evil one on for size. Musically, he's always scouring records for that one moment that makes him feel like he's never heard music before, but he long ago realized he needs to keep his copies of John Prine, Crowded House, the Replacements, Kate Bush, and Tom Waits within easy reach.

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