The dreaded sophomore slump of legend had impeded or imploded the music careers of many performers. It is almost a self fulfilling prophesy in action. An artist or band spends years gigging and perfecting their songs which eventually end up on their debut. If the band is successful the debut is feted with critical and commercial praise. Unfortunately all too often the follow up album flounders.
There are any number of reasons for this scenario; artists are often rushed into the studio by the label to capitalize on their initial success. This in turn provides no time for the new songs to ripen. In other situations a producer is brought in who either forces a drastic departure from the band’s sound or forces the band to produce a carbon copy of the debut. Sometimes it is simply the band’s exhaustion and lack of focus that dooms the follow up. Throughout the history of popular music any number of bands have succumb to the sophomore slump watching their careers vanish like a mirage in the desert.
Enter Crowded House even by their estimation an unlikely underdog in the popular music industry. In 1986 the band surprisingly took popular music by storm with their eponymous debut album which charted at #12 on the US Album Chart and scored two top ten hits with Don’t Dream it’s Over and Something So Strong. The band was lauded by critics and gaining a sizable fan following throughout the world. There was significant anticipation for their follow up album. When Temple of Low Men was released in July 1988 the band was suddenly confronted with a hard reality. The reality was that however brilliant the new album, it was not a carbon copy of their debut and many new found fans traipsed off. The critics would give “Temple of Low Men” a better reception but were also knocked a bit on their heels by a release that was intimate, darker and more introspective. The songs were masterfully performed and loaded with intensity and personal angst but were miles away from the debut in theme. It became easy to write the release off as a sophomore slump. But that is a misnomer for an underappreciated gem of a release. What occurred might be better described as more of square peg in round hole.
In the studio for Temple of Low Men the trio that made up Crowded House was looking for a new approach. Band leader Neil Finn didn’t think it was heresy to turn from the sunlit happiness of the debut to something that showed more depth. The band was looking to move away from the zany Australian persona the record label’s marketing dept. wanted them to continue to project. The band above everything wanted to be taken seriously. They wanted to change the impression that they were the reigning court jesters of pop music and instead become a band with gravitas. That attempt at metamorphosis would end up being too difficult if not an impossible leap to accomplish while retaining the level of success they had attained. It soon became apparent the richness and ironic emotion of the release would be too tough a sell for the pop dictates of the time. In hindsight “Temple of Low Men” can be appreciated as a luminous work that stands up well when examined over three decades later.
Crowded House would record “Temple of Low Men” in LA and Melbourne, Australia with Mitchell Froom once again manning the soundboard. The band would confront the pressures of success and record label expectations. All the while trying to come to terms with how their lives had been turned upside down. The pressure from the label and the threat of failure was so ever present that the band joked about calling the album Mediocre Follow-up. The eventual real title would be a reference to the band’s low brow inside jokes. As the band’s main songwriter Finn was the focal point of the tremendous pressure to succeed. The label insisted the second album needed to match or supersede their debut. By contrast the success of the debut for Finn seemed to draw him into his shell rather than inspire exuberant pop songs. This was counter to Finn’s well earned reputation as a man with instinctual pop sensibilities. On Temple of Low Men he would reach for restraint and understatement while still producing a compelling and unforgettable release. “Temple of Low Men” would be a commercial let down for the label and the band. It would chart #1 in Australia and #2 in New Zealand, but that was their home base. In the US it would enter the top 40 and # 10 in Canada; it would flame out at #138 on the UK charts never really gaining momentum in the UK. Those results were not terrible but they were not superlative and ever dampening the label’s enthusiasm for the band.
Where ebullience and joy were the theme of the day for the debut, with an undercurrent of yearning for fame flowing throughout, “Temple of Low Men” portrayed the bewildered feeling that takes place when you arrive at your goal and its aftermath. If you can divorce the album from the unrealistic expectations of the period it was created within, you find brilliance. That is probably why the release feels as fresh today as when it was released. “Temple of Low Men” reveals all of Finn’s spectacularly legendary songwriting abilities and the master musicianship of both Paul Hester on drums and Nick Seymour on bass. The album is full bodied and a revelation with songs that you could sing aloud with pleasure. The album opens up with I Feel Possessed. It is a low key but redolent track and a song that is miles away from the debut, but lingered in the same wheelhouse as Hole in the River off of the debut. The song spoke to the idea of being completely taken over by someone, a possession of sorts both magical and sexual in nature, “I’m not lying, not asking for anything, I just want to be there when it happens again.” It also spoke to events that send you into a spin as in the chorus that is both beautiful and truthful, “I hardly know which way is up or which way down, people are strange God only knows, I feel possessed when you come round.” Expressed is both the doubt and belief you experience in this type of situation. The lovely organ and keyboards set up the mood perfectly. Finally the song shows Finn is the master of a turn of phrase, playing with the idea of possession and it being not a bad thing but life changing when it happens and understanding it is like trying to grab steam.
More of a rocker Kill Eye in the imagery of the lyric can be equated to the ego and it’s ever seeking success and attention. The song examines our love hate relationship with fame. The lyrics take on the need for self preservation and the fickleness of fame. It asks the question of how we can square renown with the desire for recognition. It identifies the things we have to sacrifice to get there and the fact that it never salves our feelings of inner inadequacy. All of these deep themes take place over a funky bass and Hester just banging the heck out of his drums. The song ends with a cacophonous cathartic exorcism of sorts. The relief is found in the sunny strings as Finn delivers his angriest vocal of the release, almost as if for a moment he lost himself, “kill eye, half way to hell and beyond”.
From the first time I ever encountered Into Temptation I have simply loved this song. It is almost like a ghostly narrative on a seduction. What or who is ultimately the tempter or temptation is not spelled out and it is left to the listener to fill in the blank, “You looked at me for half a second with an open invitation for me to go into temptation.” Finn is practically crooning as he channels Bing and Sinatra over lush strings. The song seems so straightforward but has changeable meaning and conveys a self loathing for giving in to all the things you should fight against. “Into temptation knowing full well the Earth will rebel, into your wide open arms no way to break this spell.” Hester does a magnificent job on the drums conveying the feeling of sensuousness with his brush drum treatment.
Mansion in the Slums again swings from the quiet of Into Temptation into something more confrontational. The entire song is a cathartic examination of the downside of fame and questioning its worth. Here Finn puts on display the never ending search for that opiate like high that one gets from that first rush of fame. The song portrays the narrator as an ersatz junkie needing a fix who gets more and more desperate as the song progresses. Finn identifies how we hopelessly search for the best of both worlds wanting it all. “When the taste of success only lasts a half and hour or less, but you love it when it comes and you laugh at yourself while you’re bleeding to death.” There is a cheeky reminder that none of this will last long. Accompaniment wise the song features Crowded House’s trademark Maori strum guitar, great horns and a stellar keyboard bridge. The brutally honest track ends with a quasi revival preacher begging for converts to his viewpoint.
The song When You Come displays how exceptional Neil Finn is as a songwriter. The song is undoubtedly about his relationship with his wife Sharon and all she brings to his life. “When you come across the sea, me like a beacon guiding you to safety… I know I could never let you down.” It is a gorgeous heart felt tribute to her strength and ability to help him weather the storms of life. The tone is ebullient and energy packed, with Finn delivering the vocal in a full throated manner that is loaded with beautiful earnestness. The song is pure emotion.
Never be the Same delves into how hard it is to change ourselves no matter how much we desire to change. In the narrative of the song a death brings about self examination and questions why we never become the people we desire to be. The song has an inherent beauty that builds drama with the moving chorus, “That we might still survive and rise up through the maze, if you could change your life and never be the same.” The accompaniment is again brilliant and totally serves the mood of the song. The evocative call and return technique at the end provides the climax to another winning track.
Love this Life and Never be the Same are to me the core of the album conveying the Finn ethos of honest introspection. “Love this Life” also seems like a cousin to “Don’t Dream its Over”. The track deals with all the everyday distractions and irritants but points out that life is still worth living no matter the setbacks and mind boggling ironies. The chorus is a prayer for well being, “and maybe the day will come when you never have to feel no pain after all my complaining gonna love this life.” The song is beautifully structured and builds and builds to a satisfying payoff and a request, “here’s something that you can do even if you thing that I hate you, stop your complaining, leave me defenseless.” The lush instrumentation makes for a spectacular track.
Sister Madly is a sibling track to “Mansion in the Slums”. It speaks to the madness and unreality of acclaim; displaying Finn with the crown of fame sitting uncomfortably on his head. “Now you’re heading down to be someone, someone that you‘ve seen in a magazine…the position is coming through, all the people that your standing on.” This great rousting song became famously popular in concert and usually led drummer Paul Hester to engage in some crazy antics on a “free for all” of a song. The track is wry and clever displaying the band’s indomitable sense of humor and self deprecation. The double bass and snare drum accompaniment provide for a blast of a song.
In the Lowlands has always had me envisioning the Australian outback with a storm threatening. The lyrics are straightforward and dramatic as they build the dread and pending possibility of catastrophe. The imagery is gripping, “ghost cars on the freeway like the friends you thought you had, one by one they’re disappearing.” The song also has an excellent harmony that begs you to sing along. It is a song I look forward to each time I listen to the album.
The finale to the release is the song Better be Home Soon, it is my most beloved song on the album that is one of my most beloved albums of my youth. “Better Be Home Soon” is a wondrously evocative ultimatum. It delivers the narrative of a person in a relationship telling their other half to get their act together or it is over. It perfectly relates someone at the end of their endurance, not wanting to end a relationship but not being able to continue in it as things stand. “And I know I’m right for the first time in my life that’s why I tell you you’d better be home soon.” It is heartfelt and spellbinding in its simplicity and beauty. “So don’t say no, don’t say nothing’s wrong ‘cause when you get back home maybe I’ll be gone… that’s why I tell you, you’d better be home soon.” The scariest thing is that this song almost didn’t make it on the album and was a last minute addition. This is the song you can point to if anyone question’s Neil Finn’s songwriting brilliance. Put simply it is perfection and if the rest of the album was subpar this track alone would justify the existence of the release.
As someone who loved this album from the first needle drop, I can only recommend if you have not encountered Temple of Low Men please find the time to avail yourself. The songs are evocative and moving even years after they are first encountered. I find myself after all this time recalling lyrics that apply to situations in my current life. It is an album that when it was released was easy to miss but for those who encountered it back then or have encountered it since it is gripping and cannot be forgotten once experienced. “Temple of Low Men” was smart, mature and honest in an era that was too many times defined by what was throw away, dishonest and inconsequential.
Numerous critics and industry types cite the sophomore slump as have taken another victim when examining the aftermath of Temple of Low Men and it’s affect on the career of Crowded House. There is an argument that Crowded House did themselves a disservice not following label dictates by refusing to release Crowded House Version 2.0 after their debut. But the members of Crowded House have always had an inherent honesty they could not betray. “Temple of Low Men” stands as a monument to their integrity and unmatched musical mastery. The band would continue but not reached the pinnacle of fame they deserve. Crowded House would follow up “Temple of Low Men” with the stellar Woodface in 1991 and in 1994 release Together Alone.
In 1994 Paul Hester stopped performing with the band live. In 1996 the band would reunite for a final concert with the original lineup at the Sydney Opera House. Once on hiatus each member would pursue solo interests and form other bands. Neil Finn would put out two critically acclaimed solo albums. Sadly in 2005 Paul Hester would commit suicide after a length battle with depression. The band would take on a replacement drummer Matt Sherrod, of Beck fame, and release Time on Earth in 2007 as a tribute to Hester. In 2010 they would release Intriguer and the band is currently working on another release. There is a special kind of brilliance in the works of Crowded House and Temple of Low Men is a masterwork that is worthy of any serious music listener’s attention.