Neil Finn has still got it. He just doesn't particularly care for it, you know? It's not a priority right now. It's right where it's always been if he cares to whip it out. No use claiming otherwise - the proof's in the projects and the turns they've each taken. Neil is exploring modes, and doesn't he have every right? I hope so. He's earned it.
2008 witnessed Finn spinning out a glittering spate of his usual standard-issue seemingly-effortless catchy and winsome soaring chorus snap jangle pop rock songs, in a tour whose concept was giddily ridiculous: a world tour devoted not to flogging product, but to exposing Finn's creative process live onstage in conjunction with his then-never-hotter band Crowded House. It was a leap without a net, but the result proved to be no stunt. The band had gelled the previous year, over the course of a fairly brilliant and gorgeous (par for the course, yes I know) tour in support of 2007's whelming reunion effort Time On Earth. Then that tour wound down, and the announcement came that (we could only presume) the band hadn't got enough of each other, of the road and of the show upon which they were getting it on. You liked that tour? Here comes another one!
It proved to be no mere stunt, as I've said. It was more a lark wrapped in giddy whim wrapped in a dream-come-true of sorts - because the lemon-mouthed old and overly-schooled contingent of Finn's fans had been making grumbling noises for years about Finn's increasing wanderings into less obvious pop constructs, and away from what you (or rather, they) call the "accessible." "Mister Finn," went a fairly representative complaint letter of the period, "We've supported you all these years and I feel sure we all still will; we're sure you will not let us down! But doesn't a songwriter have some obligation to the audience to write songs in such a way that the one part, which is great, demonstrates some marked difference from the other part, which probably ought to be fantastic, or arresting, or simply catchy, in a way that lets us know, 'Hey now, which part of this song is meant to be the refrain?' A clear difference is so important, here! A difference marked out in melody, and/or syncopation, and/or dynamics, and/or chord progression (and with fewer or's in with those and's for preference) - you of all people know the infinite ways these things combine, and you've been so dependable landing the beast in a way that sees all of crying out as one 'Yes! This is the stuff! These pieces fit, somehow, and yet they contrast agreeably with each other, in fitting ways.' Please rest assured we applaud your experimental bent: in at least five of your songs that I can think of, you've shown your daring, bucking the established trend and presenting us I with a verse that sounds like it's meant to be the insanely catchy part, and a refrain that is comparatively subdued. Subdued yet of course, fantastic! And it goes without saying, the music and the flourishes and the optional extras you almost always lavish on and in and through your oeuvre. Bridges and such - the famed 'middle 8,' greater than which the mastery of few can claim (yours, I mean). Point is: we can't write like you! But you've proved you can, and the fact is that's exactly what we want! Please continue doing that kind of fine work, forging your way through whatever vicissitudes each verse entails, just so long as we get through to the release of the refrain in a way that everyone finds comprehensible, and reassuring. Indeed: not merely reassuring. Transcendent. Capische?"
These entreaties, very common (indeed, tiresome to some) in those days, did not fall on deaf ears. I think. Or if they did, we all sort of had it pegged as a sort of an evolution, a period, a phase - something he would go through, in any event! And we felt there were reassuring signs of a return to recognized form buried like nuggets of pure buttermilk fried chicken all throughout the fine platters of nu-theory cuisine Neil kept insisting on serving us, spinning out dish after dish for our delectation in the meantime, in those days: Try Whistling This (originally where the grumbles began, as I recall - now an undisputed brass-chased gold-standard classic), One Nil (some people were like, "whuuuut?" - yet who now can in retrospect admit to having resisted such piercing highlights as "Hole In The Ice," "Anytime," "Rest of the Day Off," and "Wherever You Are?"), I'm Not Naming The Finn Bros Albums As The Tim Collaboration Seems To Have Moderated the Unwonted and Increasingly Unwanted Tendency Towards Subtle Hook-Stinting Somewhat (although individual tracks still came in for their share of being carped-upon), and eventually Time On Earth, about half of which was looked at askance by fans who saw it as far more of a piece with what they'd been frowning at in his solo stuff.
Then came the '08 tour. All of a sudden.
A pre-tour for an as-yet-unworked-upon album-to-come, of all the unheard of things. A forming and deforming and reforming of songs in progress, in process. Prospective tunes being taken apart before you! Pieces traded maybe, put back together behind your back like either the misdirection or the magic trick (and you're not sure which!), eventually destined or at the very least, intended to make up a good portion of the followup to Time On Earth. And this incarnation of the band was, by now, a powerhouse. They had new songs their back pocket to try out for you tonight, songs that were mostly spry, simple, pure and classic stuff - their perfect and tight-fitting material! And the band was greater than or equal to it. They put those songs across with such strut and evident joy created fresh each night, you had to be in the room to believe it! "Twice If You're Lucky," "Isolation," "Either Side of the World," all came in for especial praise from fans whose ears had seen the light, like a blind man struck dumb with wonder because he maybe can't see, quite, but suddenly he's come down with synesthesia and he can hear it. Hear the light. What else could it have been but proof positive? Our man Finn has every bit of it!! And he always has, and it's pretty much a snap for him as we can all quite clearly now see and hear. Proof positive there's no other man on earth who shall write songs like these.
"Twice If You're Lucky," as they planted it smack square in the middle of my fucking forehead two nights running at the SF Fillmore, was immediately the best song I'd ever heard. If I could only quite hold all the words! It remains the best song I've ever heard. Neil is confessedly my favorite songwriter living, and it's my favorite of all his things. A matter of taste, to be sure! A questionable judgment, as I'll own. And I'll admit for balance's sake, the song I here praise also came in for some pretty harsh critiques from those self-same hard-core fans, most of whom were by this time close to forty years old. And some of them were not amused. Because you see, this song, it may have been almost, well, dopey! Giddy? Silly? So ran the criticism. Others put it "corny," others put it "trite." All those critics missed some kind of point, I suspect, but it's hard for me to put my finger on it for them and frankly, not my responsibility. How could I find the words? Because how do you describe a monumental marble garden angel breaking its pedestal moorings and floating away on a helium high? Is it a bird, is it a baby, if we create something magical, honey? It's a reaffirmation of a breaking epiphany, by means of some sleight of déjà vu, arguably, but who can argue with God and Fate armed only with magic and honey, a scent and a chemistry, one college-level intro course in philosophy and not come away from the exchange looking a bit silly? Neil mother fucking Finn, that's who fool!
Well, perhaps you couldn't even say that, but I sure can. So if somehow in this song and I'd think for the first time, Neil sort of did come away looking silly, well can I get a so what? So what! He was looking silly and as if he didn't care! And he rocked the look, even with that haircut and godawful moustache. Fool grin on his face, waltzing in 4/4 around stage (which was very confusing to follow with your eyes, I assure you) and everybody in the band doing kind of the same, catching everybody else's eye, eye to eye and grin to grin, until the same contagious dumn-fool look is passing from mind to mind like some supersneaky Vulcan emotional meme all around and throughout the whole auditorium. You think people mind looking silly with a thing like that happening? These guys up there wore silly like a hat, and for one song cocked it in dashing fashion and proceeded to make rock sound like it technically, actually, always fucking should have. Or better. "Unsophisticated" you say? I say "EAT ME."
When the album Intriguer came out, only one of these three songs was really what you'd call recognizable. The others had been transformed. The album was, by and large, full of good and great songs, including transformed versions of the ones that had once wrung so resoundingly, instantly perfect in our bell-like ears. The "Twice If You're Lucky" that graced the album remained, in its new incarnation, a great song yet. In fact, I would say if I'd never gotten to hear the album version of "Twice If You're Lucky," I wouldn't have known what I'd missed of course, but I'd have been cheated of something valuable. I love that song, in that form, also. But it can't come close to even the bootleg somebody made of the Washington D.C. show's take of what wasn't quite what it would become by Frisco!
I want to back and fill, here. That last sentence was incomprehensible. I wrote the thing and even I had to read it three times! But even beyond that: I don't regret or second-guess the artistic decisions made on Intriguer. Nor would I! Unless they, you know, legitimately did suck. But no, I uphold them and the right of the fricken creator to fricken create the fricken creation he fricken wanted to at the time, according to whatever's fricken tickling his fancy in those moments. I mean, that's what it's all about, right? If that weren't what it was all about, nobody would have ever even written "The Hokey Pokey." Let's not kid ourselves. That song is a tour de force of somebody doing their own thing (while simultaneously being a very neat little satire on conformity, obedience, and how easily people will stomach being told exactly what to do if you can sell it to them as being "what it's all about"!).
Still. I do voice...wait, I mean, many fans do voice a certain wistful wish that the pure and perfect undiluted hundredproofthermonuclear simple syrup Neil used to sweeten the sweet tea of our everyday dreams with didn't always have to be adulterated and muted these days with things like excessive subtlety, subduedity. Many fans voice that same complaint! Many fans have said that. They did. You mark my words or words to that effect! Those of us who heard the earlier '08 incarnations on that tour, especially - that thing we had heard and rejoiced to hear, it didn't show up. We knew then, "Neil's still got it!" Because, you know, he clearly had had it, but what he had had, he hadn't ultimately elected to put that on the finished platter. I guess we all sort of concluded that the mode those songs had "on the night," by the time the band was messing around in the studio in the light of a later day...well, that mode must just have become old hat, by then, to Neil. Or silly hat. Perhaps it became silly hat. And one suspects silly hat only works in a certain perfect moment, on the night that it's somehow, working for you. Working in your favor. I've had nights like that! So have you. Everyone has. So what we finally got, what we get on the delivered and official product: a respectable plate loaded with choice songs, from good to great. Maybe muted with a touch of cardamom, or the addition of some unidentified spice, or some herb maybe, in there (shizandra??), all of which combined makes the final concoction - bubbling, fizzy, interesting, sure! But somehow not what we'd woken up with ringing in our heads for that past six months. That glorious thing that had had us jumping out of our beds, excited for the future again.
The point is: this is a man in full possession of his powers, and probably yours too. Don't be fooled and don't fool yourself. He's still got it. He's basically just fucking with us. Grow up! He's allowed to. It's his music, "go write your own if you think it's so simple," to quote every talentless fan who has no idea of their own what creation entails, takes it like a black box God-carven stone tablet from on high, and can't grasp the concept that criticism is in fact, both art and literature - and as legitimate a form of either as anything it examines. As legitimate a form as any you'd care to get all sulky and pissy over, or defensive on behalf of. As the wits always wag: yeah, let's see you do it! Hah. You're criticizing my criticism?! And yet you suck at it you hypocrite! "Don't criticize if you can't create" - that's the motto? How about taking the far more directly applicable version of the statement: "Don't criticize if you can't criticize," mate.
I swear. It's like that time Robert Evens walked up to Roger Ebert all pissed off and said "don't write movie reviews if you can't fucking produce a film!" The parallels are exact.
So give a grown man his due, and let him roam down the paths he cares to, at this juncture. Listen to the new that comes out, if you want! You're not obligated. It's cool. I'll tell you it's worth getting into, and that you might like it. More, you might also catch that gleam, wink and a tease here and there, and there - that lets you feel kind of excited about the next evolution or revolution to come. WHICH MAY BE ONE OF THOSE U2 ALL YOU CAN'T LEAVE BEHIND RETURN TO FORM DEALS, OH MY GOD CAN YOU STAND IT? It's a possibility, distinct and tantalizing. But if you want to tell me the man has run out, hasn't got it any more, well you can comfort yourself with that old saw, I guess. Drag out the old tired refrain, again: "decay takes all," but no. Not in this case. Or at least: not yet and not remotely yet. Folks: Neil Finn is at the top of his game. He's just pursuing various interpretive sports moves while he can, up at that game-top. It's his game anyway! Nobody else was in the league. So you know what? I'm game to play along. Count me in, Neil. I'm right there with you, as usual. As always.
Partly because, you know. I secretly know, come on. I know Neil's got to be so close about now, so due, so pregnant with a big burgeoning retro fetus of celebratory full-circle-coming to blow our minds with that same old shining moment, with that holy hell hallelujah old school classic Finn gold. You can't not know that! It's pretty much just up to him, and how and if he cares to do it. He's sitting on, basically, a...I don't know. Leave metaphor suggestions in the comments there, for that one.
But trust me. The man's not only got it, he's holding onto it for the given moment, unfortunately, until he feels the time's come round to right, for that old mode of gift he's given us and given us endlessly to be taken out, rubbed bright, and taken for granted again. I've got a particularly specific feeling on this one.