Crowded House: Gravity Stairs (digital outlets)

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The Howl
Crowded House: Gravity Stairs (digital outlets)

Few people these days would still cling to the belief that bands should have a stable line-up like the Beatles and U2, or that they need adopt that famous “last gang in town” attitude of the Clash.

Band line-ups these days are more like the Rolling Stones (now down to just two original members) or Fleetwood Mac who can count more than a dozen former members.

One of those Mac touring members was Neil Finn and his Crowded House can tot up a similar number of past members.

The difference with, say, Fleetwood Mac is that while their sound changed with every new songwriter who arrived, Crowded House still pivots around Neil Finn.

That said however, in this line-up – which includes co-founder Nick Seymour, keyboard player Mitchell Froom, a longtime Crowded House familiar with the original band and this more recent iteration – there are also guitarist/singer Liam and drummer/singer Elroy Finn, Neil's sons.

The family connection (Tim Finn and Neil's wife Sharon also appear on vocals in a couple of spots) gives an aural continuity evident also in the writing.

Both Neil and Liam explored falsetto dream-pop on previous albums under their own names and here Liam stakes a claim with a solo composition (the immediately engaging The Howl) and a co-credit with Neil. Elroy co-writes on two with his father.

That dream pop element is evident in Neil's opener Magic Piano which drifts effortlessly (“always rising to the surface now, on a zephyr, the echo ever so faint. Let the melody reign again”). It may refer to the late Paul Hester, or even John Lennon (“I was dreaming of him”) because the light touch of the production brings to mind the more reflective tracks on Lennon's Mind Games and Walls and Bridges.

And also in the closing track Night Song, an increasingly Prince-like funk ballad and an open-hearted love letter to someone who has been an inspiration/life-support/traveling companion: “I owe you thanks now for everything. Remembering you got me so inspired . . .”

Aging, the passage of time and the reassurance of the comfort love brings seems to be on 66-year old Neil's mind as in the paternal All That I Can Ever Own (“as I grow I'm grateful . . . heaven knows I'm hopeful”) and on the mysterious Black Water White Circle: “Don't look for meaning, only purpose . . . please let me know that you believe in me”.

These are gentle and beautiful songs of the kind any writer would be proud to claim as a career high.

One of most moving here is Some Greater Plan (For Claire) with Tim which alludes to a brief wartime infatuation their father had, but the weariness in the verses expands its meaning into a meditation on a world and people broken by the conflict. Then in the chorus: “If all that we can do is fill the room with a song of love, I'm there if you want”.

This one of the least opaque lyrics on an album notable for its lyrical elusiveness.

Those familial vocals come to the fore on Life's Imitation (AKA Teenage Summer) which opens like an offshoot of Simon and Garfunkel and morphs effortlessly into breezy, hopefully optimistic pop (“want to be near you but I can't get close enough”) and I Can't Keep Up With You is a very McCartney-like mid-tempo pop-rocker.

As with the previous album Dreamers Are Waiting, there are however no signature Crowded House/Neil Finn hit singles leaping out here.

If Neil is a songwriter's songwriter, this is an album artist's album.

In a cover by Seymour which references the Beatles' Revolver (there any real similarity ends), Gravity Stairs pulls few surprises.

But when we're dealing with craftsmen like these understating Finns in this third iteration of Crowded House, that's probably a compliment.


You can hear this album at Spotify here

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