Graham Reid | | 3 min read
Even if you don't much care for Neil Finn's music – and there might be one or two who don't – you can't help but admire how he has successfully negotiated (at perilously close to 60) the troubled waters of becoming a senior statesman in a pop-rock culture which has the Youth Audience as its default position.
Finn has constantly pushed himself into subtle new directions – the dream-pop and falsetto sounds of his last album Dizzy Heights were quite a departure – without every dropping the songcraft and melodic gifts he seems to have in his DNA.
As is widely known, this album – which should be attributed to “Finn and Friends” given the terrific talents he has invited into his orbit for it – took shape in a very different manner, perhps just for the challenge: Composing on piano rather than guitar, bringing in a revolving roster of performers to be recorded in a way which was courageously spontaneous (although astutely planned) and presenting it live in a series of internet broadcasts with an audience in the studio . . .
It could have all gone horribly wrong of course . . . but Neil Finn is far too smart a fellow to let that happen.
Finn – a man clearly and rightly often troubled by these troubling times – turns his attention on this album to uncomfortable matters like the ever-present menace of the mad, misguided and violently suicidal in this divided world: As on Terrorise Me, an exceptionally beautiful but raw address to the all-too-familiar news-cycle killers, a lyric which carries within it mundane details of life before the explosive moment, the sins of ignorance and hate, that chance of history when someone is in the right place when the wrong people arrive, but also the strength of knowing that human love always wins over ideological hate.
Neil Finn packs a lot into a lyric on Terrorise Me which opens as a melancholy front parlour piano ballad and then – through the agency of Victoria Kelly's arrangements, a “choir” and strings – becomes something more global as it alludes to British and French attacks by those who look down the wrong end of the telescope.
It is an extraordinary piece of humanitarian music making.
Elsewhere there is the feeling of being an accomplice to the Original Sin, an awareness of the dead beneath our feet (the spartan Widow's Peak), police brutality (The Law is Always On Your Side) and more.
If this sounds like it could be delivered in Nick Cave-like declamatory manner or even bellowed by a death metal band, that is not how Finn essays these songs. Here they are thoughtful, muted, full of holy reverence and hymnal allusions, that falsetto returns (the church?), there are strings and distant choral voices, pastoral orchestration . . .
And the closing track is the ineffably beautiful I Know Different which is one of those understated personal/political ballads-cum-anthems which Paul McCartney has sometimes written, but has too often pulled back from in terms of nakedly unsettling imagery.
Finn keeps it poetic but doesn't resile.
Despite the almost oppressively serious nature of much of this – the title suggests it all comes from that silence in the night where we encounter our worst fears and doubts – this is a very beautiful sounding collection full of heartfelt and gentle singing, a democratic sharing of duties, his ever-present touches of psyche-pop (Chameleon Days) and more.
The fragility of brother's Tim's voice on Alone is emotionally pitch-perfect for the lyric.
In the years before concept albums, it wasn't uncommon for artists to create themed records: Johnny Cash's albums about cowboys, trains and Native Americans; Sinatra with his 2am broken-hearted ballads and so on.
Out of Silence harks back to this idea: Songs integrated by the artist's over-arching concerns – faith and the questioning of it which has frequently been a Finn concern is evident also – and here unleavened too much by the need to compromise and offer some up-beat pop to assuage.
The late Sixties psyche-pop of Second Nature – a distant cousin to Hole in the River/Private Universe etc -- orchestrated by Kelly does that musically but lyrically it is saying something else.
Neil Finn has for so long been an artist at his peak that it's hard to remember if he ever disappointed.
This is an adult album – that is, an album for adults – and is not his easiest, or necessarily for those who delight in Crowded House pop-rock.
But here Neil Finn proves again that in a noisy room, the person who speaks quietly is the one we will all strain to hear.
Neil Finn's Out of Silence is available now on CD and download etc, but comes out on vinyl in October.
There is much more about Neil Finn/Crowded House etc at Elsewhere starting here.