Sitting here listening to the unassailable, so-fucking-perfect-it-hurts 12-string rocker "She Will Have Her Way" for the umpteenth time today, I can already feel it insinuating itself into my soul. It's taking on meanings not suggested by either the explosive studio version on Neil Finn's 1998 magnum opus Try Whistling This, or any of the dozen or more bootleg takes I have committed to memory. In the new lyrics added before the coda ("In the quiet hours she comes/ Taking me towards my life/ And there's something about that face when you wake up/ That makes everything all right") Finn has somehow found, in simplest language and phrasing, the pure expression of everything I've been feeling for the last three weeks. Here is my relationship with music at its core: I need something to speak to how I'm living today, right now, at this moment. In the 17 songs here, I feel that connection again and again.
A master songwriter with a nearly peerless ability to wrap captivating melodies in fascinating, deceptively direct aural colors, the New Zealand-born Finn has never received acclaim worthy of his body of work, even when the most successful of his former bands, Crowded House, was filling huge venues in Europe, the UK and Australia in the '80s and '90s. The band's one colossal North American hit, "Don't Dream It's Over," has since been bludgeoned by repeated airplay on Adult Contemporary radio, but, in testament to its durability, still reinvents the universe every time its first chords ring out. It's the last track on 7 Worlds Collide (recorded over several shows in Auckland last year), and the sweet chaser to a selection of new ideas, rediscoveries of lost treasures, and the spontaneous energy of a group of hugely talented and committed musicians conjuring magic again and again from the South Pacific air.
This sojourn is well earned for Finn, who took a huge risk when he exorcised the ghosts of Crowded House on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in 1996 because he wanted to move in new musical directions. On the subsequent Try Whistling This tour, he could have relied on Crowdies classics to keep his core audience happy and singing along. To his credit he didn't. The album, with its dark, fractured music, delivered more than the sunny exteriors of "Weather With You" and "Distant Sun" ever promised, and was nothing short of revolutionary live. At one of the final shows on the tour, in front of a packed crowd at Melbourne's Festival Hall, I stood 10 rows back as Finn gamely played nearly the whole album, dismissing crowd requests for oldies with an offhanded, "Sorry, not tonight. Tonight's about new things." In music, as in all creative expression, nostalgia equals death, and Finn's salvo that night finally made me realize he was not just a supremely gifted singer and musician but, in all the best senses of the words, a major artist.
Even in this informal setting, or maybe because of it, this record is filled with the flowing lifeblood of our music, courtesy of Finn and his band, which counts among its members Ed O'Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead, Lisa Germano (who handles vocals, piano and violin), former Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, brother Tim Finn and a host of others.
They trade off on songs, Finn appearing on most (but not all), and work their way through the island grooves of "Paradise (Wherever You Are)" from 1995's Finn Brothers album, through a supple rendition of The Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" to three new Neil Finn songs that will see the light of day in their studio forms when his 2001 album One Nil is released in North America as One All this summer. The vibe is loose and communal; no one engaging in rock-star bullshit. Germano's vocals beautify everything they touch, and Vedder's growl, so distinctive and overpowering at first, eventually reveals its tenderness on songs like "Stuff and Nonsense" and his own "Parting Ways."
Those curious about Finn's new songs will find plenty to like in "Turn and Run," a duet here with Germano (Sheryl Crow handles the vocal on One Nil) and "The Climber," both built around simple acoustic progressions and accented by ukulele and lean electric guitar lines. The other new one, "Anytime," a lovely meditation on human frailty, hints at the theme of the record, which emerges halfway through Vedder and Tim Finn's luminous promise, made during the piano-led "Stuff and Nonsense" ("And you know that I love you/ Here and now not forever/ I can give you my present/ I don't know about the future") is followed by the only appropriate response to such a tentative declaration of the here and now: sheer noise. The next track, the full-on punk assault of "I See Red," sounds like the essence of life.