[13 July 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I’d love to tell you that Liam Finn is a songwriter of rare intuition and that his craft completely wipes away any small, nagging doubts about nepotism. I’d also love to recommend his album FOMO to a crowd of young listeners who suddenly find themselves giving a damn about the music scene in New Zealand thanks to Flight of the Conchords and the recent Crowded House reunion. And I’d certainly love to see Liam Finn continue to be taken seriously as an artist, even though his father is quite possibly one of the great songwriters of the southern hemisphere, and that FOMO will hold up against future scrutiny when people stop and reminisce about junior’s climb to the top. But then I listened to the album. The golden moments are few and the bronze ones are many on FOMO, an album that offers much in the way of adequate, serviceable pop that stands just on the edge of “good enough” without going much further. It’s almost earnest in the way it doesn’t deliver, as if the whole sophomore slump thing were obligatory.
FOMO is an acronym for Fear of Missing Out. There are tiny clues leading to this eagerness, if not an overall sense of it. In the course of ten songs over 36-plus minutes, Liam Finn feels a “sense of urgency” and confesses that he’s “tired of cold feet” and has “not got the patience”, but looks back to observe that “time tipped over”. It’s all the making of coming-of-age stuff without any crux, any moment of realization. There are a few times where Finn can be pretty straightforward, but they nonetheless feel vicarious. He even says so in “Reckless” when he sings “I adore your reckless attitude”, one of the more succinct melodies to be found on FOMO. The closet thing that he has to an angry side can be in a vocal-shredding performance on “The Struggle”: “To bed without your supper, you suffer all your own.” “Little Words” takes a sad and cynical view on the ease of modern communication, or voyeurism, or both as the song’s narrator regrets losing a picture of a girl in her underwear from his computer. No big loss, because he then shakes it off by saying “you’re pretty much dead to me”. Oof.
What FOMO lacks in lyrical direction and/or poetic license it surprisingly struggles with to make up for in pop melodies. It’s not that Finn’s songwriting is bad or instantly forgettable, it’s that nagging feeling that these songs did not come about through a natural songwriting process but through something more obtuse and methodical. Finn sings the title of “Don’t Even Known Your Name” with much timidity, something that he’s beyond considering how, if you’re not paying close attention, you may mistake him for his dad. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of song that aims for breezy pop but lands in somewhere more disposable. So does “Cold Feet”, though Finn’s singing is far more confident this time. Still, the chorus, with its four-count snare and far-reaching melody, comes across as a buildup leading to just more of the same.
Liam Finn is capable of better. We know because he has achieved better. Some days I can’t get the song “Honest Face”, from his Champagne in Seashells EP with Eliza-Jane Barnes, out of my mind. Yet even though Finn has earned his place in contemporary Beatlesque pop, FOMO feels regressive, almost like the work of a rookie. And it’s not as if this rookie has struck out, it just sounds like he ticked off ten foul balls in a row.