On Crowded House's first true post-reunion group effort, the hooks aren't as readily apparent as in the past. That may be a good thing.
Today's young rock stars can only hope their careers last as long and turn out as idyllic as Neil Finn’s has. For more than 30 years, Finn has been turning out charming, often brilliant thinking-person's pop. His two bands, Split Enz and Crowded House, have been successful enough to keep money in the bank, but not huge enough to invite destructive excess. He's also released solo albums and collaborated with his brother Tim on a pair. He’s quietly become something of an elder statesman, and everyone from Cheryl Crow to Eddie Vedder, from Johnny Marr to Radiohead, has lined up to pay tribute and collaborate.
Of course, not everything has been milk and honey. Crowded House's career was not without its share of strife, not least when Tim Finn joined the band for a spell. Drummer Paul Hester quit in 1994, and Neil Finn imploded the band shortly thereafter. Hester committed suicide in 2005, and that was the catalyst for Finn’s reforming Crowded House. He converted an in-progress solo album into 2007's well-received Time on Earth. Now, Finn, still living in his native New Zealand with his family, has made Intriguer on much surer footing, with a revitalized band and contributions from friends, his wife, and one of his two sons, a successful recording artist in his own right. Rock ’n’ roll stories are supposed to snatch tragedy from the hands of the good life, not the other way around.
Maybe Finn's stability and contentment has informed the sound of Intriguer, a mature, thoughtful, and mostly mellow album. Most likely, though, it's that Finn is no longer satisfied with writing sharp, easily-accessible pop songs. Not that he can't do it, as a track like "She Called Up" from Time on Earth made clear. He is simply more interested in taking that pop underpinning to more sophisticated, less familiar places. Usually for an artist in their 50s, that's code for labored, middle-of-the-road dross that's not much fun to listen to. Indeed, you could be forgiven for forming that type of first impression of Intriguer. The lead single, "Saturday Sun", doesn't sound much like a single at all, a tense, opaque mass of guitars, keyboards, and vocoder through which no chorus makes its way. It's followed by a string of songs that are slow and well-measured. Most of the verses are more catchy than the choruses.
It takes about five listens for Intriguer to sink in. That's an overused phrase to be sure, but it's actually true in this case. Crowded House are such adept craftsmen, they can get away with being subtle, hiding a hook or a great little guitar part where you wouldn't expect it. Intriguer is the sound of a band who are very comfortable together and with themselves, not trying to be anything they're not. A couple tracks, such as "Amsterdam", have a bit too much of that laid-back, comfy slippers feel. But even "Amsterdam" has the most rippin' guitar solo ever on a Crowded House record. It hits you out of nowhere, again and again.
Crowded House made Intriguer with veteran American producer and engineer Jim Scott. Wilco met Scott when they were all working on Finn's 7 Worlds Collide project in 2008. Tweedy and company liked Scott so much they decided to stay on and make Wilco (The Album) with him. And sure enough, you can imagine Tweedy singing more than a few of the songs on Intriguer. Scott has clearly helped free up Finn and his band to try on new sounds and let things flow more naturally. Finn is a notorious perfectionist, but Scott helps the multi-faceted arrangements and layers of instruments to breathe in a way a Crowded House record never has before. "Falling Down" goes from a gentle, arpeggio-based acoustic breeze to a pounding, McCartneyesque middle-eight, complete with hollered backing vocals, which runs up against a wall of psychedelic guitar noise before resetting itself. Even better is "Isolation", a two-fer that gives you shimmering, tremolo, '50s-style doo-wop before hitting you with a full-on acid freakout. Even on the mellow numbers that stay mellow, Finn and multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart fill in the corners with sundry sounds and instruments. New drummer Matt Sherrod adds balance and character.
If you're looking for faster tempos and more immediate tunes, you'll have to look to Intriguer's second half. The gorgeous, piano and lap steel-led "Twice If You're Lucky" comes closest to the sort of pure pop Finn used to deliver in large quantities. It's a touching, uplifting reflection on taking stock of love when "you think reality's shut you down". Also, it may or may not be a treatise on Crowded House's second act. "Inside Out" is a straight-up alt.country rocker, complete with fuzzy guitars and lo-fi mix. You can see, then, how what at first may seem like dross turns to revelation and inspiration.
Finn's voice is a pleasure in itself, and time has been kind to it. A hint of a rasp here and there only adds depth. His lyrics, too, are sharp, with a sophistication that matches the songs'. It takes someone with time-won perspective to observe that "Kids kissing on the floor / They make a work of art".
At ten songs and 40 minutes, Intriguer gives you time to delve into it. It's a great album in the classic mold, one that rewards you. Not everyone who loves "Weather With You" or "Pineapple Head" is going to love it. But it leaves no question that Crowded House's initial disbandment was premature. It is fun to listen to, and though that fun is of the grown-up sort, it makes for one of the year's best pop albums all the same.