Neil Finn is back on the road this April with his much-loved band, Crowded House, finally able to fulfill live dates in Europe and Australia in support of the Dreamers Are Waiting album of 2021. This is before playing a resurgent Glastonbury Festival in June, for the first time since 2008. As the chief songwriter in Crowded House, therefore, he’s ready to air blistering new self-penned songs (“Whatever You Want”, “To the Island”) to audiences beyond his native New Zealand. He’s also equipped with a fresh tune penned with his brother Tim (“Too Good For This World”), and another (“Playing With Fire”) he put together with current band members Nick Seymour, Liam Finn, Elroy Finn, and Mitchell Froom. He’s further set to air self-written numbers from the revered Crowded House back catalog (“Fall At Your Feet”, “Distant Sun”, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”), as well as a track (“I Got You”) he wrote as a member of his former band, Split Enz.
It’s a perfect time, in other words, to reassess the oeuvre of a tunesmith who’s frequently spoken of in the same breath as Lennon and McCartney, and who Radiohead guitarist and friend Ed O’Brien once described as the “most prolific writer of great songs”. This, after all, is a supreme melodicist and lyricist who’s won countless New Zealand Music Awards since rising to prominence in the late 1970s. He also picked up the Q Classic Songwriter award in 2010, on top of being made OBE, with Tim, for “services to New Zealand music” in the 1993 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Meanwhile, he’s invariably called a “songwriter’s songwriter”, and his compositions are nearly always deemed to be “finely crafted” or “well crafted”, whether released under the name of Crowded House, or Split Enz, Neil Finn, Pajama Club, Neil and Liam Finn, the Finn Brothers, or Neil Finn and Friends.
Yet Neil, for all that, is increasingly placed in the “underrated songwriter” category, alongside the likes of Elliott Smith and Townes Van Zandt. This may have something to do with his lack of commercial success in the US, or it may pertain to his being rudely omitted from Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. In any case, here’s a countdown of ten solid reasons why, as a writer and co-writer, he deserves to be very much rated.
10. “Playing With Fire” (Crowded House, 2021)
Yep, this Neil Finn collaboration from the very latest Crowded House album totally deserves to be up there with the best of them. It’s blessed with the kind of edgy pop exuberance and spiky guitar sound not heard since 1995-era Blur, making it an absolute highpoint of the sporadic second phase of Crowded House that began in 2006 (following the group’s initial breakup in 1996). There’s horns, a choir, and a clearly locked-in band (featuring Neil’s two sons) having a fine time, with not a whiff of the melancholy usually associated with Crowded House. There’s much instead to suggest a man losing his mind during a global pandemic, with Neil anxiously relating: “The chairman’s got it in for me / And my brain is getting closer to the edge”. It’s a sense of madness that pervades the accompanying video, too, featuring band members in flamboyant white suits, dancers, explosions, and what seems to be a Lycra-wearing cycling team for a horn section.
9. “Golden Child” (Pajama Club, 2011)
In less band-centric style, Neil wrote “Golden Child” for a one-off album he made principally with his wife Sharon in 2011, under the name of Pajama Club. He was all about experimental songwriting at this time, often by adding words to his wife’s inventive basslines and semi-electronic grooves, instead of composing melodies around his lyrics. Here he sings wistfully on the subject of his two sons flying the nest, over a delicately finger-picked melody which is made all the more poignant by Sharon’s haunting backing vocals and harmonies. It’s a beautiful song in a way that’s more loose, folky, intimate, and lo-fi than anything else he’s ever done, complete with his own unrefined drumming. In fact, not finely crafted at all. But in a good way.
8. “Won’t Give In” (The Finn Brothers, 2004)
It’s always a thrill when Neil and Tim, initially of clownishly dressed new wave band Split Enz, get together for some brotherly songwriting action and immaculate fraternal harmonizing. It’s something they did joyously on the classic Crowded House album Woodface in 1991, with such momentous results as “It’s Only Natural” and “Weather With You”. It’s also something they did, as the Finn Brothers, on 2004’s Everyone Is Here LP, on which is to be found the emotional and surging “Won’t Give In”. This is a song that’s about as finely crafted as it gets, actually, with its jangly guitar riff, polished production, dramatic “come-on-now” middle eight, and deeply moving – almost existential – lyrics about kinship, connectedness, and, heck, mortality and everything. The Finns hit you with such words as “What does it mean when you belong to someone? When you’re born with a name? When you carry it on?” And they hit very, very hard.
7. “Fingers of Love” (Crowded House, 1993)
Neil is clearly a great collaborator when it comes to writing songs, but he can also come up with the goods entirely on his own if he needs to. “Fingers of Love” is a case in point, being a Crowded House number from the brilliant Together Alone album of 1993, which doesn’t feature Tim at all. He delivers on the whole “finely crafted” thing (of course, he does!) and sings beautifully of being sensually cleansed and finding solace in sunbeams, music, and massages. But the main thing about the song is the atmosphere. Neil has multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart to thank in large part for this, who he brought into the band for this LP, and who provides those stunning guitar licks which reverberate throughout the song. He also owes much to co-producer Youth, who brings to the track a wonderfully spacious and trancey sound that takes the listener to another plane. “The chiming of a perfect chord”, indeed!
6. “She Will Have Her Way” (Neil Finn, 1998)
Neil sought altogether different atmospheres and sonic textures for his first solo album, 1998’s Try Whistling This, by co-opting a range of esteemed producers and virtuoso musicians, particularly of the drumming variety. This resulted in some new adventures in percussion, along with an array of distinctive orchestral flourishes, and electronic effects, to do justice to a supremely confident songwriter going into more twisted and gothic territory than he had with Crowded House. Much of this is evident on standout track “She Will Have Her Way”, with former Split Enzer Michael Barker laying on big, John Bonham-style beats, and Bjork and Madonna producer Marius de Vries ramping up the chiming guitars and powerful self-harmonies. It’s a ballad, sure, but one about a kind of love that’s seemingly harmful, addictive, and life-sapping, which leaves the narrator exclaiming, “I am heavy and my spirit has died”. It’s disturbing in its subject matter but, despite that, exceptionally Beatlesque. Plus it comes with a wonderfully entertaining video that borrows from the 1950s B movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.