[10 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
New Zealand’s Neil Finn needs no introduction for those who are into New Wave. He was the late ‘70s and early ‘80s frontman for Split Enz, responsible for such instantly catchy classics as “I Got You”, “One Step Ahead” and “Six Months in a Leaky Boat”. Honestly, if you haven’t heard 1982’s Time and Tide from Split Enz, here’s a handgun for you to fight your way through the hordes to your local record store. Of course, Finn reached even greater acclaim later on as the primary force behind Crowded House, which yielded the inescapable and tuneful ‘60s pastiche, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”.
Essentially, Finn is one of those songwriters that we should be heralding a lot more than we do, and I suspect that he gets a bit of the short shrift owing to the fact that he’s from the antipodes, instead of somewhere sexy such as London or Brooklyn. Well, it turns out that Finn has been pretty busy as of late. Not only did he contribute a song to the end credits of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but he’s involved with a band called the Pajama Club with his wife. And, of course, Crowded House is generally an ongoing concern. Now, Finn is back with a new solo album, his third and first since 2001’s One Nil (known as One All in the United States), and it’s notable in that David Fridmann (MGMT, Tame Impala, the Flaming Lips) was roped in as a co-producer.
Here’s the thing though: Dizzy Heights is anything but, and may represent a career nadir for both Finn and Fridmann. Not only has Finn’s distinctive warble been sandpapered down into something unexpectedly soulful and unfamiliar, but much of the record is cut from the same soft rock cloth as Rod Stewart’s latter albums. In fact, if you’re just familiar with Finn’s work with Split Enz and Crowded House, you may be profoundly disappointed in this rich, ornate and orchestrated album, literally oozing with drippy strings. Given Fridmann’s pedigree, you might expect this to have psychedelic touches and flourishes, but the end result comes out rather soft shoe, nudging into later period Roxy Music territory. To crib from The Hobbit, Dizzy Heights is a rather unexpected journey for Finn, and the thing doesn’t have instantly recognizable tunes that its creator is known for.
That said, repeated listens do reveal some rewards, but that’s just getting over the shell shock for what seems to be a blatant change in direction for Finn. Maybe it’s just a sign of an auteur getting older, but Dizzy Heights seems to indicate a decline in the tuneful, off-kilter melodies that Finn is best known for. There’s even a song here called “Recluse” about being an Internet and TV couch potato (in an effort to remain current, there’s even a reference to Game of Thrones in the song), which has the effect of making the artist appear to be a curmudgeonly old man waving his cane at a bunch of kids on his front lawn.
Nevertheless, Dizzy Heights does get off to an interesting start. “Impressions” offers a neo-soul vibe that is strangely affecting, once you get used to the complete shift in direction for Finn’s muse. It’s odd to hear at first, but it reveals itself over time to be one of the album’s best tracks. “Flying in the Face of Love” is also somewhat catchy, and has an overall melody that could have fit snugly on Roxy Music’s Avalon. And, best of all, the jaunty “Pony Ride” is toe-tappingly infectious and offers a poppy deviation from much of the material here. However, as much as there are highlights on Dizzy Heights, the album is full of formulaic filler.
Lead single “Divebomber” is exactly that, a trip over the edge of the abyss. It reminds me of a composition I made on trombone in high school, jokingly titled “Bombs Over Baghdad”. Finn’s song has a similar effect: it’s listless, and goes nowhere with its samples of airplanes divebombing. I’m sure this is a metaphor for something, but it’s so ultimately boring that there’s absolutely no payoff in the songwriting or the lyrics. Similarly, “White Lies and Alibis” starts off with all sort of garish keyboard effects, and doesn’t congeal into something powerful. It just feels like filler, prattling on for nearly six minutes. The song that follows this, the aforementioned “Recluse”, starts out with ping-ponging effects as Finn sings on top of these unsettling sounds. And, a weak track among weak tracks, the listless “Lights of New York” ends the album with a squeezebox melody and plinky plink piano line that offers little in the way of catchiness.
The biggest flaw of the album is that Finn is clearly futzing things up and trying to be more of an experimental songwriter, which isn’t his strong suit. He’s better off being more direct and straight ahead, and, unfortunately, that’s a path that he chose not to take on Dizzy Heights, employing the use of Fridmann to create an unsettling effect. “He is good at subverting things,” says Finn of his co-producer, “and making things sound a bit messed up and not as obvious, rather than being too tasteful, which is always a temptation.” Well, I would have preferred that Finn give “Into Temptation” (to quote from a Crowded House song) and create something affecting and disarming, as he is wont to do. But Dizzy Heights seems to distance itself from that aspect of Finn’s songwriting personality to prove that he is more than just an ordinary songsmith who can write something you can dance to, which is too bad, because Finn’s greatest hits had an indelible effect on the listener.
It just seems that Dizzy Heights is just Finn noodling about, unsure of what direction to take, and the whole deal feels painfully laborious. Finn is capable of so much more than this, and I suppose he’s just grown weary of playing the hits to an intended audience. All in all, when everything is said and done, Dizzy Heights is the exact opposite for this tuneful and tasteful songwriter: it represents a low point in his back catalog, with hardly a decent song anywhere in sight. Peter Jackson may call on this guy for favours, but, to borrow a line from The Hobbit, let’s just hope that Dizzy Heights is an anomaly and Finn just needed to reach out and go to unfettered territories, and this album just records a journey of there and back again to which he will return to doing what he does best. And that’s connecting with listeners with ageless, timeless tracks, such as he did during his tenure in Split Enz and Crowded House.