Home improvement: Crowded House grows mature with new album

By Mark Guarino

Money, glory and reconciliation are the usual byproducts of a rock band reunion. Except for Australia’s Crowded House, there is a fourth factor: Mourning.

Which is unmistakable from “Time On Earth” (ATO), the band’s recent album and first in 14 years. Largely known as the band driven by the pop sensibilities of singer and chief songwriter Neil Finn, Crowded House faced an unexpected tragedy two years ago when original drummer Paul Hester (also the drummer for Finn’s previous band Split Enz) killed himself. Finn acknowledges that it was Hester’s death that pushed him to reconnect with bassist Nick Seymour after which the two started working on new songs that indirectly confronted Hester’s decision and its aftermath.

Ever since the band’s 1986 debut (with cover art that eerily featured Hester adrift in the air wearing angel wings while his bandmates glumly wait for him onstage), Crowded House has been synonymous with pop music purity, mostly thanks to Finn’s buoyant singing voice, which today at age 49 retains an immortalized youth. The band first appeared in the U.S. charts in 1987 with “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong,” tuneful hits that characterized the band as upbeat at a time when U.S. audiences were mired in the tacky eroticism and loud blare of hair metal and other MTV junk. But like the Beatles, the band Crowded House were most linked with, their music grew darker with each successive, no matter how sweet the dressing sounded. Lyrical complexity has never been the best way to hold onto positions on U.S. charts, so it came as no surprise that Crowded House remained mostly cult favorites here while in Europe and Australia, enjoyed multi-platinum success massive fame.

“Time On Earth” is not designed as a comeback album, but more a document of where the music has come to after all these years. It is deeply engrained in themes of mortality and loss, asking questions about second chances, ruminating on regret.

Heady stuff. Luckily, it is also musically brisk while prevents Finn’s sobering outlook from developing into one-dimensional dread. “Down on the ocean floor/that’s where I’m heading for,” is the perspective he opens the album with (“Nobody Wants To”) but the music — reverb guitar, gauzy production — is luxurious. In fact, most of this album is comprised of songs that grow on you after successive listens. More medium tempo ballads than immediate rockers, the songs rely on understated melodies and lyrical ideas that stand at the forefront. Finn moderates a pleasant atmosphere that becomes warm and inviting though textures of guitars and keyboards.

That’s not to say there are not easily identifiable Crowded House songs that would naturally sound at home on their earlier albums. “She Called Up” is a brisk rocker that hits a high note at the top and never wavers. Smiths guitarist (and today a card carrying member of Modest Mouse) Johnny Marr contributes songwriting and guitar duties, particularly on “Even Child,” a bright folk rock staple where the band sounds just as upbeat as ever.

But while long-time fans will appreciate those efforts, they will also welcome the new depths of the songwriting here. “Silent House,” written with the Dixie Chicks, addresses an aging relative whose memory is fading while “Pour le Monde” — the album’s central beauty here — features Finn backed by a piano, mourning the loss of a friend and also a world gone mad with war. “I lost my regard/for the good things that I had/and the radio was sad,” he sings.

Despite some missteps (the euro pop “Transit Lounge” and the drenching orchestration of “You Are The One To Make Me Cry”), “Time On Earth” demonstrates what happens when pop music heroes travel through life, when optimism is not enough and reality needs musical accompaniment too.

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