In which writewyattuk goes to work on Dizzy Heights, the new album by Neil Finn.
So I saw it as a good sign that I had to work hard to get to grips with Dizzy Heights (Lester Records, 2014), the latest assured offering from Neil Finn.
You know Neil, the office junior who added youthful energy to brother Tim’s band, Split Enz, back in the day, going on to be the driving force behind Crowded House and so many other winning projects, not least teaming up with big bro again in Finn and The Finn Brothers, his two previous solo albums, and Pajama Club, to all intents the nucleus of his current band.
It’s difficult to pigeonhole where this latest offering fits in that canon, amid the wealth of fantastic material Neil has put our way since his initial Finn collaboration in 1995.
I’m certainly not sure if I can measure this succinctly against Try Whistling This (1998) and One Nil (2001). But if I remember correctly, it took both albums a while to make their impression on me. I love them now, and Dizzy Heights has similar qualities.
Like all those albums from the past two decades, Neil has never been known to take the easy route. As with other great songwriters like Elvis Costello, you get the feeling he could write winning pop at the drop of a hat and be forever in demand from every unworthy pop act on all those unseemly talent shows – a Smokey Robinson for his generation, slaving away at the Hit Factory.
Yet while Neil’s about far more than that, there are commercial nuggets hidden away here – key moments when the turn of a phrase, an unexpected chord sequence or irrepressible hook leaves you marvelling. That doesn’t say any less about the moments in between either. It’s all part of the package, and this is a beautifully crafted if not obvious product.
Let’s take it from the beginning, and other-worldly slow-burning lead track Impressions, which I’d even go so far to say has a little Pink Floyd about it as well as a more likely Paul McCartney feel.
Whatever your initial impression (sorry), it’s the perfect lead into second track Dizzy Heights, the first sign that we have a New Zealand twist on Prefab Sprout at their most potent here. Neil and his backing vocalists – including wife Sharon and eldest son Liam – and their falsetto tones bring to mind blue-eyed 70s soul, laid-back and reminiscent of gorgeous summer days – perfect fuel to get you through a British winter. And this is pure hit 45 material.
There are at least a couple of songs here – not least because of the vocal style – you might expect on a Prince album, not least with Flying in the Face of Love’s subtle funky guitar and Sharon’s driving bass. Maybe that’s down to the influence of former Finn co-writers Wendy and Lisa over the years, and there’s certainly the feel of the little squiggled-one’s Cream, with fellow recent collaborator Paul Kelly and Split Enz overtones. To take that ‘80s influence further, think Fleetwood Mac in their big-bucks commercial unit-shifting era too. And it’s only really obviously Finn-ish when we reach the middle eight.
As hinted at already, this album appears to be a contraction throughout, and nowhere is that better defined than with the haunting, off-the-wall cloud-busting imagery of Dive Bomber, again reminiscent of McCartney at his most winningly-experimental – not least when the orchestrations take hold and I expect the Liverpool Oratorio. It’s a curio for sure, but just the right side of experimentation, saved by Finn’s voice and the production. Where David Bowie caught us all out with Where Are We Now? last year, Neil has his own kamikaze attack here.
We need a chance to breathe after that sensory assault, and get it with Better Than TV, perhaps the last tune here you’d knowingly whistle along to (obviously a recurring Finn theme), yet a vital pathway to the next track. Maybe this is the closest link we have yet to Finn’s band past, albeit not the charting variety. More to the point, we have an inspirational lyrical message.
I mentioned Bowie before, and Pony Ride certainly has the mark of the man. If you can’t see that, just imagine him covering this. There’s more here too, that buzzing bass reminding me of recent Paul Weller output. There are elements too of Finn’s harder face, but rather than guitar-driven, it offers a more subtle, lower-in-the-mix approach, in keeping with the spirit of the whole album.
Three-quarters of the way in I detect another influence too, as Finn’s voice grows more rough and ready. Then I realise it could be Crowded House. And that takes us nicely – via a Weller-esque instrumental link – to White Lies and Alibis, which could even be an out-take from my favourite Crowdies album, Together Alone, with Finn in more characteristic voice, the main act harmonising with himself and the bass, guitars and piano, successfully fusing a political message and brooding melody with more saccharine qualities.
Even when he’s at his most quirky, Neil can’t stop composing perfect hooks and crafting classic songs, and we have that in the wondrous, multi-stranded Recluse, a clever and witty yet seemingly-simplistic five-minute grower which should have ‘hit’ written all over it. And the Finn family work their way to a inspiring crescendo, in a stand-out moment packed with quality moments.
Those who enjoyed Liam’s I’ll Be Lightning will dig younger brother Elroy’s percussion on Strangest Friends, the background guitar wail putting meat on the bones in another slow-building highlight, Sharon’s chugging bass making me think Bowie again, as well as further Antipodean favourites The Go-Betweens.
The throbbing heart of the song leads nicely to In My Blood, another highpoint for me, the song that first bore its way into my sub-conscious and arguably the crux of everything we’ve been leading to. And that mix of contradiction and other-worldly feel is to the fore again. A contemplative introduction more reminiscent of 1995’s Finn leads to a rousing, emotionally-powerful chorus.
The wonderful harmonies are competing yet complementary – a triumphant embodiment of Neil’s various on-the-record projects over the decades – from off-the wall to commercial and back again. And the strings and Neil’s vocals in the latter stages expertly complete the puzzle. There’s even a bit of China Crisis at their best in there for this reviewer, adding to that ‘80s feel hinted at throughout.
And then we’re away, Lights of New York taking us back to cloud nine and that ‘altered state’ amid dreamy, summer vibes, with Paddy McAloon in mind for this reviewer again. This piano-led master-piece also appears to be a fitting partner for Dive Bomber, yet all the sweeter and more pensive, and all over too soon.
What the wider world makes of Dizzy Heights remains to be seen, and I’m still unsure where I’d place this among Neil’s past product. I prefer One Nil in some respects, and it would take something pretty extraordinary to shift Everything is Here in my affections. But I’m just pleased he’s proved he can still make great music all these years on. And there are at least half a dozen tracks here that stand up to his best-ever compositions.
I’ve never had any doubts about his song-writing, which I value among the finest ever, and Neil Finn in 2014 is clearly still on a creative high, as the title might somehow suggest.
To find out more about Neil Finn and to track down a copy of Dizzy Heights, try this link to his official website here.
And for a webcast review of Neil’s Sydney Opera House appearance alongside Paul Kelly last March, head here