One of the best (yet underappreciated) bands to come out of the ‘80s was Crowded House. Most Americans only know them for the classic “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and perhaps “Something So Strong.” But after four albums and eight years, the band disbanded around 1995. A reunion seemed unlikely after the suicide of drummer Paul Hester. Yet after a 14-year hiatus, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Neil Finn reformed Crowded House with bassist Nick Seymour, keyboardist/guitarist Mark Hart and new drummer Matt Sherrod in 2007 for their reflective Time on Earth album.
Turns out the reunion wasn’t short-lived. Intriguer picks up where Crowded House left off two years ago, only a little less somber this time. I say “little” because it’s still not the super melodic pop/rock (often compared to The Beatles and Squeeze) that once characterized this band in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s much closer in spirit to Finn’s solo work of the least 15 years: dark, perplexing, and a little brooding, yet still captivating with his word imagery and increasingly maturing melodies.
Intriguer teams Crowded House with Wilco producer Jim Scott, and it’s a good match. Both bands have much in common, combining melodic classic rock with alternative textures and puzzling lyrics. And of course the album name is (ahem) full of intrigue; it means to pique interest or to plot. I suspect Finn and company picked it because it sounds cool, though they have fun playing with both definitions between the sometimes sinister looking artwork and the twisty process of developing the songs on the road.
I say that Intriguer doesn’t resemble Crowded House’s earlier albums, but that’s not entirely true. Aside from their pop-friendly debut, it took multiple listens for me to latch onto each successive album. Intriguer is no exception. There are no obvious radio singles, but the subtleties and strengths to grow with each successive play.
“Saturday Sun” is positioned as the single, though this band has grown too underground and alternative to garner radio play. Still, it’s a solid upbeat rocker that would play well with fans of Coldplay and Wilco. “Twice if You’re Lucky” has a more approachable piano-based pop sound, though it still resides in the modern alternative format. Bu it’s “Either Side of the World” that most reminds me of classic Crowded House, simply for its Beatle-esque style built over a surprising samba groove. I’d also recommend looking out for the bonus track “Turn It Around” (available for download at iTunes) for its infectious jig-styled rock sound.
Quieter highlights include “Isolation,” which is something of a dream-like mash-up that begins with an ethereal folk style (featuring guest vocals from Finn’s wife Sharon), only to finish up with a psychedelic rock jam (featuring a guitar solo from Finn’s son Liam). “Falling Dove” similarly alternates its style, by dropping a classic rock bridge into the middle of a gentler folk-pop song.
It’s not always easy to figure out where Finn is coming from with his words. He’s more or less admitted to writing lyrics that sound good and create pictures without necessarily expressing a deeper theme or meaning.
Is “Saturday Sun” about the sun itself or is it sharing Finn’s personal views on God. Could “Falling Dove” be referring to the Holy Spirit when Finn sings, “You keep defending me when I’m behaving badly/Because you love me too much … The humble nature of redemption/ The simple act of finding a use/Hoping and almost praying/Believing for a moment it’s true.” At least “Twice if You’re Lucky” seems to be about celebrating the special moments in life, while “Either Side of the World” cautions against compromising ourselves for the things of this world. And “Amsterdam” appropriately paints a bleak picture of the city, rife with imagery of temptation and corruption.
Finn is still in remarkable voice after roughly 30 years of touring and recording, and even though his songwriting seems to become more impenetrable with age, there’s no denying his gift for smartly crafted music and lyrics. To hear him back with his talented bandmates is the icing on the cake—they’re certainly worth catching live since they continue to put on a worthwhile show. Intriguer is not the band’s best, but it’s nevertheless another fine entry in Finn’s musical canon and Crowded House’s enduring legacy.
Standouts: “Twice if You’re Lucky,” “Saturday Sun,” “Either Side of the World”