Crowded House: Intriguer

RIYL: Split Enz, Tim Finn, Finn Brothers

Neil Finn titled his first post-Crowded House solo album Try Whistling This, and that may as well have been a manifesto for everything he’s done since. Once a dispenser of instantly memorable hooks, Finn spent his solo years burrowing into an increasingly insular (and ethereally lovely) melodic world, and where albums like One Nil were arguably more meaningful than his earlier work, it often felt like he was engaging in a bit of passive resistance against the pop fame he achieved – and inexplicably lost. Fine, he seemed to be saying. You didn’t buy brilliantly catchy Crowded House records like Woodface and Together Alone? I won’t bother with the mainstream stuff.

Fans who’d been frustrated with Finn’s drift away from stuff they could whistle were doubtless cheered when he unexpectedly decided to reconvene Crowded House in 2007, after a more than ten-year hiatus – but anyone who thought the reunion meant Finn was sitting on another “Don’t Dream It’s Over” must have been crushingly disappointed in their first album back, Time on Earth. For all intents and purposes, it sounded like another Finn solo record – which made sense, given that the sessions started out that way, but the band’s trademark energy was noticeably lacking.

So was Time on Earth just a case of Finn cleaning out the pipes before he got back to business? Yes and no. It’s true that Intriguer sounds like more of a band effort than Time on Earth, but what this album really establishes is how Finn has evolved as a songwriter. He’s always addressed unusual themes – this is a band that recorded a song titled “Pineapple Head” and once fantasized about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pants falling down in front of the Queen of England — but as the years have worn on, Finn has found the confidence (or maybe just the means) to probe deeper, and with deceptively unrestrained emotion, into the things we worry about in middle age and onward. Family, aging, commitment, the bonds of friendship, the struggle to square one’s dreams with who and where they really are – these are the places Finn’s muse has led him, and as topics for pop songs go, they’re briar patches.

They beg for connections, though, and that’s the crux of the reunited Crowded House – it’s a musical fraternity, and not the kind that wears togas and slips roofies to undergrads. If you can listen past the lack of an obvious hit here (leadoff single “Saturday Sun” is about as straight up as the album gets), you can hear bonds being built; in three-minute increments, you can hear Finn discovering who he is as a husband, a father, a musician, and a friend. (Alternately, you can just let it sort of wash over you; aside from a few forays into spiky dissonance, Intriguer is as gauzily lovely as it is thoroughly mid-tempo.)

Songs like these clearly aren’t for everyone. Finn’s late-period work has a tendency to flit away if you try to get a grip on it, and Intriguer is cut from the same cloth. You need to slow down and let these songs come to you. It might take some effort, but it’s worth the wait. “These are times that come only once in your life,” Finn sings at one point, “Or twice if you’re lucky.” It sounds like an allusion to the band’s history, but he’s speaking for all of us. (Fantasy 2010)

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