5. “Into Temptation” (Crowded House, 1988)
The drums also help define the 1988 track “Into Temptation”, as does a moody string accompaniment, a creeping guitar sound, an upfront vocal, and a seductive melody that draws you into a world of guilt and forbidden desire. The late Paul Hester works the brushes brilliantly to achieve the soft jazzy sound on the song that’s probably the crowning achievement of Crowded House’s sophomore album, Temple of Low Men. It’s a kind of haunting alternative to Gene Pitney’s “24 hours from Tulsa”, if you will, rife with regret and sadness in connection to an opportunistic love affair. And it’s the intimacy, simplicity, and emotional honesty of the track that grabs you, heavy as it is with the lyrics: “Into temptation / Knowing full well the Earth will rebel / Into your wide-open arms / No way to break this spell.” Neil wrote it on his own, too. Most likely in the dark.
4. “Devil You Know” (Split Enz, 1983)
Now “Devil You Know”, off eighth Split Enz album Conflicting Emotions, is definitely overlooked, or underrated, or maybe even both! So thanks go out to Tanya Donelly for bringing the 1983 track back into the limelight by reinterpreting it brilliantly for her 2020 covers album with the Parkington Sisters after she proclaimed in an interview that it “runs through my head every single day of my life.” The sometime Belly frontwoman asserted that Neil sounds like “he means everything he says” on the song and that there’s “an earworm element to it” that’s “not annoying at all”. Which is all true!
The younger Finn brother was, in fact, pretty much in charge of Split Enz as singer and songwriter at this late stage in the band’s career, and there’s a definite sense of an emerging Crowded House on this number in terms of the soulful sincerity of the vocal, the poignancy of the subject matter, and, yes, the songcraft. The synthesizers give it that new wave edge, but Neil is unconcerned with being whacky or eccentric here. He just wants to make the point that the search for meaning is so frightening sometimes that it makes sense to just remain complacent, “sitting like fools” and “stuck by the rules of fate”. Which he does magnificently.
3. “I Got You” (Split Enz, 1980)
Tell the uninitiated that it’s “Neil Finn of Crowded House” singing lead on “I Got You” and they’ll likely not believe you. It sounds like it should be Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, Midge Ure of Ultravox, or someone like that. But it’s absolutely true: Neil wrote and sang the electronically driven banger, which became the first international hit for Split Enz in early 1980, hitting #1 in both New Zealand and Australia, and #12 in the UK. The band performed it on The Paul Hogan Show and everything, delighting audiences with those sinister verses, those swirling Prophet synthesizers, and that major-league chorus that comes out of nowhere. The Finn brothers also went on to perform a rocking live version of the song with Pearl Jam on a number of occasions, its dark subject matter concerning a creepy possessive guy being right up the grunge band’s street.
2. “Four Seasons in One Day” (Crowded House, 1991)
It’s the Neil Finn of third Crowded House album Woodface, rather than “I Got You”, who’s the quintessential Neil Finn for many. Here he is strumming an acoustic guitar, with sensitive lyrics and air of melancholy both in check, singing classic song after classic song in close collaboration with actual, full-time band member (at this point) Tim. They bring us “Weather With You”, and “It’s Only Natural”, but, in truth, Neil originated nothing finer with his brother than the fifth single off that record: “Four Seasons in One Day”.
Not only does the track boast a beautiful melody, an exquisite arrangement, a masterful middle-eight, and some spine-tingling vocal harmonies, but it also deals unusually abrasive lyrics (“smiling as the shit comes down”, “blood dries up like rain”) on the theme of conflicting emotions. It’s those sorrowful piano chords that further take it to the next level, as well as the dreamy harpsichord sound on the instrumental break that’s strongly evocative of the Beatles’ “In My Life”. And, really, what better evocation can there be?
1. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (Crowded House, 1986)
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” is an obvious choice for #1, right? But what you gonna do? It’s Neil Finn’s “Yesterday”, which, he said, “fell out literally without me thinking about it too much.” It’s an undisputed classic that’s been covered in the region of 104 times, by such artists as Sixpence None The Richer and Diana Krall, and it was a massive international success as a single in 1987. It justifiably reached #1 in New Zealand, and #2 on the US Billboard Hot 100, though it only peaked at #27 in the UK Top 40, lagging far behind The Firm’s “Star Trekkin'”, Bruce Willis’s version of “Under the Boardwalk”, and Samantha Fox’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now”. Who can say why?
Despite that, the enduring appeal of the Neil Finn masterpiece, from the very first Crowded House album, lies in its almost anthemic quality, while being possessed of the kind of enigmatic lyrical complexity to generate scores of YouTube comments and ensure it’s as pored over as any great Dylan number. It sounds romantic, for sure, but it also packs the punch of a protest song, with its emotive allusions to personal freedom and political freedom, a battle ahead, “tales of war and of waste” in the newspaper, and wanting to “turn right over to the TV page”. That’s why it made total sense when Paul Young performed it at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in June 1988, to a televised audience of 600 million. That’s why it makes total sense today.