You can’t say this about the breakups of most bands, but when Crowded House split in 1996, everyone knew it shouldn’t have happened. The band had released only four studio albums. They were commercially successful most everywhere except for in the US, and musically at the top of their game. Their most recent studio album, 1992’s Together Alone was their best to date, a masterpiece that made the most of their considerable strengths while taking their charismatic, melodic, intelligent pop/rock in some new directions. Yet, it suggested fresh approaches and new melodies were yet to be minted. The split was premature and everyone knew it.
Everyone, that is, except for Neil Finn. Or maybe he knew it, but that knowledge alone wasn’t enough to overcome his desire, as he put it, to not play in a band any more. As Crowded House’s singer, songwriter, and primary guitar player, he had the most to lose by keeping the band going and risking diminishing returns, and the most to gain by going solo and/or working with his brother Tim, who had fleetingly been a Crowded House member. On the Together Alone tour, Finn had also been forced to deal with one of the most difficult and taxing aspects of band life — the runaway drummer. Paul Hester quit in the middle of an American tour, and Finn had to scramble for a replacement. Hester had been with Finn throughout Crowded House’s existence, and before that in Split Enz. His participation in 1996’s Farewell to the World “goodbye” concert belied the impact of his departure two years earlier, but maybe it was enough to finally convince Finn to throw in the Crowded House towel.
So it’s fitting that Hester is a prime catalyst behind Crowded House’s reunion a decade later. The tragedy of it, as has been well-documented, is that it was Hester’s 2005 suicide that brought Finn and original bassist Nick Seymour back together for the first time in years. This, coupled with the tenth anniversary of Farewell to the World (and if you’re cynical, diminishing commercial and critical returns on his solo work), caused Finn to realize that he missed being in a band — and that band was Crowded House.
Finn already had most of his third solo album in the can, however, and Seymour had been working on it, too. So, the switch to a Crowded House album was mostly semantic. Latter-day Crowded House multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart and new drummer Matt Sherrod were brought in, but appear on only a handful of Time on Earth‘s 14 tracks. In true Fleetwood Mac fashion, then, Time on Earth is a pseudo solo album that was still undoubtedly affected by being brought under the band moniker. It’s probably no coincidence that it’s the best thing Finn’s done since Together Alone.
On the downside, it also has all the markings of a late-career comeback: More than one safe, experienced producer (in this case Talking Heads, Dave Matthews, and Morrissey vet Steve Lillywhite and alt.country mainstay Ethan Johns); clean, mid-to-downtempo arrangements; and a near total absence of levity. Sure, Crowded House always had its melancholy moments, including most of 1988’s moody sophomore effort Temple of Low Men. But even that ten-song album had pop gems like “I Feel Possessed”, “When You Come”, and “Sister Madly” to balance the tone and tempo. Time On Earth, in contrast, provides exactly one such flashpoint in “She Called Up”. A short, snappy tune driven by electric piano, goofy synth blips; and an arch, unhinged chorus; it’s the kind of timeless pop that Finn’s been excelling at since his Split Enz days, and that he doesn’t allow himself to indulge in enough lately. The strutting, tense “Walked Her Way Down” comes close with its effortless, Steely Dan-like chorus, but its minor key keeps it squarely in a more serious vein.
Indeed, the rest of Time on Earth is serious and somber, and fairly quiet from a musical standpoint, too; it’s closer to Adult Album Alternative territory than a Crowded House record has ever been. But, given the subject matter, this hardly seems inappropriate. Throughout, Finn explores themes of loss — of time, people, direction. Songs like the wonderfully wistful “Nobody Wants To” and the terse, trancelike “Say That Again” are about the importance of honest communication before it’s too late. “They make it go away / Pretending that it’s all OK”, Finn sings on the former, the danger of being inattentive to emotional struggles all too clear. On the soaring ballad “Silent House”, co-written with the Dixie Chicks, he promises “I will try to connect / All the pieces you’ve left.” He’s ostensibly singing about a woman; but, as with nearly all of Time on Earth, the lyric could just as easily be about Hester. And it’s that focus and desire to come to grips, however sad, that gives that album its poignancy and lends weight to the otherwise soft arrangements. On the excellent, yearning first single “Don’t Stop Now”, which features more strong melodies in five minutes than most hipster bands manage in an album, Finn states his intent: “Give me something I can cry about… sometimes you have to turn the wrong way ’round”.
At times, even Finn’s emotional commitment can’t overcome a general sense of navel-gazing. “Pour Le Monde” is so gorgeous it justifies the pretension, but “A Sigh” (which basically sounds like one) and “People Are Like Suns” are among those that might better have been pruned from the album. Old pal Johnny Marr stops by for “Even a Child”, and though it’s always nice to hear Marr hasn’t lost his jangle, the song sounds more like a lesser electronic track than anything. Finn’s one real stab at experimentation results in the album’s one true embarrassment, the mess of German voices and incongruent backing vocals that is “Transit Lounge”.
Take its weaknesses in stride, and Time on Earth still has enough emotional resonance and melodic moments to make it something special. Once again, the case for Finn (who’s in fine voice throughout, by the way) as one of a rare and dying breed of gifted melodicists must be made. Now that he’s got the band back together, maybe he’ll get everyone in the studio for a looser, less sober follow-up. Who knows where that might lead.