I’m having a complicated reaction to the new Neil Finn album.
This doesn’t happen to me very often. I’m usually happy to stick with my first impression of an album, as subsequent listens deepen either my appreciation or my disinterest. But I have heard Dizzy Heights, the third solo record by New Zealand’s finest, probably two dozen times now, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it. Just when I feel it start to click, it slips away. But then, just as I’m ready to write it off, something strikes me in a new way.
I’ve become obsessed with Dizzy Heights, but not because I love it. I keep listening because I’m trying desperately to understand it. And not just my own reaction, which is confusing enough. I want to know why Neil Finn made this record, what he sees as its virtues and its failings, why he chose to go in this particular direction. Thus far, the intention of the artist remains particularly inscrutable, though I do have some theories. So I keep on listening.
I should mention that I wouldn’t do this for just anyone. If the words “Neil” and “Finn” were not emblazoned on the cover of Dizzy Heights (albeit scrunched into one word), I would have set this aside ages ago, satisfied that I’d heard all there was to hear, and it just didn’t work for me. But this is Neil Finn, one of the finest songwriters I’ve ever encountered. I first heard Finn’s work when almost everyone my age did – when MTV began playing the videos for “Something So Strong” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” from the first Crowded House album. And I fell in love.
Little did I know then that the fine-voiced frontman had a long history with his brother’s band, Split Enz. Neil joined in 1977 and recorded seven terrific little pop records with them. By the time of 1984’s swan song See Ya Round, Finn had proven himself as a songwriter, and when he formed Crowded House in 1985, his talents really started to shine. Those first four Crowded House albums are unimpeachable to me. They contain so many perfect pop numbers, so many songs that are textbook examples of how to write this kind of song well. My favorite of the four is Woodface, on which Neil welcomed brother Tim Finn to the fold, and the pair came up with 14 absolutely flawless tunes.
And so I’ve let some things slide since then, because those four albums mean so much to me. It was a while before I had to – Neil Finn’s first two solo albums, Try Whistling This and One Nil, were superb, and his two albums with Tim as the Finn Brothers were pretty good as well. So I try not to think about the fact that Finn resurrected Crowded House in 2006, and sullied the name with two middling blah-pop albums. And it’s all I can do to forget 2011’s Pajama Club, a waste of disc space that sounds like it was much more fun to make than it was to listen to. And it pains me to recall that the last truly great Neil Finn song I heard was “Turn and Run,” 13 years ago.
I’m not sure what happened. Perhaps Finn’s muse contracted some kind of wasting disease, and slowly faded away. Perhaps he just grew old and complacent. But I listen to those latter-day Crowded House albums, and I just die inside. A song as typical as “Twice if You’re Lucky” is a standout here, a stronger piece than any of the others that surround it. It’s such a shame to hear Neil Finn sing material like this, especially live, when he really tries to sell it. He’s not resting on his laurels, despite the fact that his laurels are phenomenal. He’s putting his back into writing new material. It’s just not very good.
So what does a former genius do once his muse has died? Apparently, something like Dizzy Heights. After this, there’s no arguing that Neil Finn is simply in a slump, or doesn’t realize the sheer gulf between his old material and his new stuff. I think he does. I think he realizes that his muse has abandoned him, and the 11 songs on this new album find him working to the absolute top of his abilities. Needless to say, they’re not anywhere near the (ahem) dizzy heights he used to attain on a regular basis.
But Finn made a surprising move, one that sets Dizzy Heights above anything he’s done in a long time – he hired Dave Fridmann to produce. Fridmann is best known as the man behind the boards for most of the Flaming Lips catalog. When a band wants to weird up – as OK Go did in 2010, for example – they call Fridmann. He is a sound-over-substance kind of guy, but his sounds are astonishing. Look at the last couple Flaming Lips albums. It’s fair to say that the band didn’t show up with any real song ideas, but the remarkable sonics make up for it, and set a foreboding, almost terrifying mood.
Dizzy Heights doesn’t quite do that, but its sheer sound is remarkable, so far outside what Finn has dabbled in before. I’m still catching new sonic details in this thing, more than 20 listens in, and the production carries even the weakest of Finn’s songs. (Well, except for one, but we’ll get to that.) This feels like a conscious choice to me, like Finn knows he can no longer play to his melodic strengths, so he’s inventing new ones for himself.
In a strange way, the simple and repetitive songs on Dizzy Heights cast the last decade of Finn’s work in a new light. It’s almost as if he’s been working towards these atmospheric, pulsing, almost melody-free songs for a long time, and he’s finally arrived. Take a trifle like “Better Than TV.” Had this been recorded with just guitars, bass and drums, it would have been unforgivably boring – the melody is repetitive, the song goes nowhere, there’s no real chorus. But with the swirling strings and sonic frippery floating in and out, it’s never less than interesting. In fact, it feels catchier than it is.
Much of Dizzy Heights goes this way. The title track is a little bit of soul that never really takes off, but the airy keyboards and zippy violins elevate it. “Flying in the Face of Love” is just a bass line and little else, but Finn and Fridmann paint a pretty dazzling picture around it. “White Lies and Alibis” begins with more than a minute of atmosphere before the low-key electric piano and ride cymbals come in, and while the song doesn’t do very much, the strings, percussion, strange backing vocals and left-field effects make it a striking listen.
Nowhere is this technique more apparent than on “Divebomber,” inexplicably the first track released from this album. I’ve heard it described as anti-music, and that’s not far off the mark. It’s almost deliberately off-putting, a strange mixture of Flaming Lips keyboards, effects and strings, topped off with the most ear-aching falsetto vocals I’ve heard in years. It achieves its own strange power by the midpoint, but for most of its running time, it’s nigh-unlistenable garbage. Finn is unaccountably proud of this mess, as if it proves that he’s not slipping into a comfortable old age, but “Divebomber” is quite possibly the worst song he’s ever foisted on the public.
Things can only get better from there, and in the album’s second half, Finn does pull out some fairly good songs, from the thudding “Pony Ride” to the endearingly straightforward “Recluse.” The best of these is “In My Blood,” buried at track 10. It has a chorus you’ll remember, a twisty and curious verse, and this album’s signature stunning production. It’s the song on which everything comes together, the closest Finn has come to penning a classic in more than a decade. It’s over quickly, though, and the album concludes with a confused muddle called “Lights of New York.” (It’s kind of amazing that Finn’s vocal can be so far off the melody here, considering this song doesn’t have one.)
The juxtaposition of “In My Blood” and “Lights of New York” sums up this album for me. One minute it’s compelling in ways I can barely understand, the next it’s leaving me cold. Here is its central paradox: Finn sounds re-energized here – limbered up and at fighting weight for the first time in many years – in every way except the songwriting. I want to love these songs, because this album was clearly a labor of love for its author. But the songs keep me at arm’s length. They resoundingly fail to live up to the genius that wrote them.
So the secret, then, to enjoying Dizzy Heights is to forget that it’s a Neil Finn album. Had this been the debut of a new singer-songwriter with an ear for elaborate arrangements, I’d be praising its potential, while warning him to steer clear of the impulses that birthed “Divebomber.” And I’d be looking forward to subsequent records, and to following this new artist’s career. Divorced from expectations, Dizzy Heights is mostly not bad. Much of it is perfectly listenable.
But alas, there’s Finn’s name on the cover, and his picture on the gatefold. It’s inescapable. This is a Neil Finn album, and while it’s the best thing he’s done in some time, it still falls short of what I’m now coming to realize was his best work. Dizzy Heights is the sound of a man realizing that his muse has failed him, and figuring out where to go next. And while he’s chosen an interesting path, and made probably the best album he could, it’s still not enough to overshadow the fact that the songs aren’t flowing like they used to. Dizzy Heights is both a sign of a sad decline, and a testament to how well Finn has compensated for it. I will no doubt keep listening. Which, in itself, is a bit of a victory.
See you in line Tuesday morning.