There comes a time when events out of one’s control demand a response. This is exactly what occurred for the remaining members of Crowded House. Frontman Neil Finn and bassist Nick Seymour found that 10 years after shuttering Crowded House they would be compelled to reconvene the band to eulogize a fallen colleague. The results of that reunion would be the luminous 2007’s Time on Earth.
Crowded House had elected in 1996 to call it a day with each member of the trio go on to solo and other musical efforts. They were opting to leave a changing record business that had lost its taste for the clever pop the band had effortlessly delivered over four albums. An additional reason for the decision to decamp was drummer Paul Hester’s struggles with persistent depression. That depression was only heightened by endless touring and the separation from his newborn daughter and partner. While touring in America to support their release Together Alone his anxiety increased exponentially until he left the band mid-tour in 1994. In June of 1996, the band announced the release of their greatest hits album Recurring Dream and stated that a tour of Europe and Canada would be their last, after which they would disband. Following that announcement, it quickly became apparent that their homeland fan base would not let them slip quietly into oblivion. The band’s response was the epic Farewell to the World benefit concert on the Sydney Opera House steps. The concert was the band’s farewell to their fans and most especially their fervent Australian supporters. With that event, Crowded House was shuttered, and few thought the band would ever reconvene again. Time would prove both the band members and their fans wrong.
With the official end to the creation of new Crowded House studio material, Neil Finn would move on to a critically acclaimed solo career producing two well-received solo albums. He would collaborate on an Oxfam benefit effort 7 Worlds Collide which would see him mix it up with the likes of Johnny Marr, Radiohead members Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien, Eddie Vedder and other seasoned musical veterans. Nick Seymour would go on to join or form a number of groups including Deadstar, and Bell X-1. While Paul Hester would form the band Largest Living Things, play the part of Paul the Cook on the Wiggles children’s show and host his own television show in Australia, Hessie’s Shed. The band would state again in 1999 after the release of their b-sides and outtakes compilation Afterglow that they had no intention of reuniting.
That adamancy against a reunion changed after the suicide of Hester on Easter Sunday, March 26, 2005. Hester unable to shake a string of unsettling events including the split from his partner and separation from his two girls hung himself in Elsternwick Park in Melbourne. That unfortunate event was the culmination of years of self-doubt and depression that would finally gain the upper hand. Finn would later weigh in on the impact of Hester’s death, “When we lost Paul, it was like someone pulled the rug out from underneath everything, a terrible jolt out of the blue. He was the best drummer I had ever played with and was for so many years my greatest friend.” His death would be the catalyst for the reunion of the band and the release of Time on Earth would be a tribute to Hester’s life and mourn his untimely death.
The eventual 2007 release of ‘Time on Earth” would originate from Neil Finn’s work on his third solo album. It would take on another purpose with Hester’s passing, becoming a requiem of sorts. An additional casual piece of the Crowded House reunion puzzle was Finn and Nick Seymour working on preparations for a live album release of the Farewell to the World concert. Out of that work, the two original members decided to reconvene the band and recruit new members. Matt Sherrod, a drummer renowned for his work with Beck, would eventually be chosen to replace Paul Hester. Mark Hart, of Supertramp fame, and who had performed with the band on stage and in the studio during the Woodface era would also return. Additionally, a number of contributors would appear on “Time on Earth”, among them members of Neil’s family, wife Sharon and sons Elroy and Liam, also Beth Rowley, Finn’s longtime friend and The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr along with Marr’s daughter Sonny. Along with co-writing “Even a Child” with Marr the song “Silent House”, that Finn had written with the Dixie Chicks, would get a rework and appear on the release.
Time on Earth would be the fifth studio release from Crowded House and was produced by Ethan Johns and Steve Lillywhite. It was recorded at Roundhouse Studios, Auckland, NZ, RAK Studios, London and Real World Studios, Wiltshire. The release would receive a positive critical reception and go platinum in Australia and gold in New Zealand within weeks of the release. In the US it would reach #46 on the album charts and # 3 in the UK. Nick Seymour would again provide the cover art for the album; with a reference to Hester, using a blue dragon attacking a man to represent Hester ultimately being consumed by depression. Hester would inspire and haunt the proceeding but other influences also made an impression; the war in Iraq, Terrorism, Finn’s joys and frustrations with songwriting, and the frailty and death of parents and loved ones. Songwriting wunderkind Finn would weave these themes with his trademark mastery producing stunningly brilliant work.
“Time on Earth” would be a masterwork of the audacious left of centre pop like every other release from Crowded House. The album begins with “Nobody Wants To” which would continue the sound Crowded House had made famous, that lush and lovely Maori strum. Here begins the threading of literate evocative sadness brought on by Hester’s loss that would exist throughout the release, sometimes more obvious and other times more oblique. The feeling of powerless regret like a ghost lingered over the proceedings. In “Nobody Wants To” there is an examination of how we avert our eyes, utilizing euphemisms, sublimation and repression of emotion to maintain our stiff upper lip. The “It” referred to in the lyrics is death,” Nobody wants to think about it, Nobody wants to talk about it, Nobody protects you.” The track is a beautifully constructed song about the inevitability of each individual’s demise.
“Don’t Stop Now” is an inspired melding of various images and situations. It starts out with the insanity of getting lost while on a trip paralleled with the ability to get mentally sidetracked and distracted from goals. It also presents the frustrations of waiting for the muse to inspire and spinning your wheels while attempting to write a song. The composition has an inherent swirling assent with guitar hooks and gorgeous harmonies that do not let go. It is very trademark Crowded House with the upbeat of the music overlay and then the melancholy wry observations that Finn is so good at capturing in his lyrics; “Don’t stop now, give me something I can write about, give me something I can cry about…restless, hopeful, in silence, I wait” This track displays all the wisdom gained in Finn’s solo works prior to this release, blended with the enlighten pop of Crowded House for a spectacular result.
“She Called Me Up” is a song that could have come straight off of Crowded House’s debut updated with added musical mastery amassed through time. The impact of Hester’s death again bleeds through lurking as the possible subject of the phone call. It is a narrative of a sudden devastating call that like a bolt out of the blue changes everything, “She called me up and gave me the news. It made me so sad, sad, sad. There was nothing I could do. She’s too far away and you had to leave. I can never repay you now for what you gave to me.” The sorrow of the situation is couched in a punchy jangle guitar that channels all the quirk that Crowded House has in spades. The subject is sad but the accompaniment reflects all the cheekiness of Finn, Seymour and Hester; Paul would have been so proud of the song.
“Say That Again” again blends many personal themes, children growing up and leaving the nest, the mellowing of a romantic relationship, and the ephemeral elements that inspire a song. It discusses how all-absorbing that creative drive can be and the toll it takes on other relationships. It conveys the compulsive need to write a song and get the monkey off your back. Displayed is the idea that the smallest thing can set off a need to write “A chance remark becomes a spark and maybe luck has come again.” Also captured is the challenge of being a father and knowing your kids have to go their own way and make their own mistakes which are difficult that is to watch, “I know you got to fight the plan, you got to bend the rules…you got to be your own man you got to make the rules”. Finally, the song sums up offering the advice to keeping an eye to the legacy you bestow on your family and making sure it is a good one, “Go on making moments last a lifetime, we live on in the promises we keep.” This effervescent song is proof that Neil Finn is a brilliant songwriter.
The first three songs are personal in their scope; the next three songs have a worldly outlook. “Pour Le Monde” was written as a protest of the Iraq War. It presents the everyman attempting to square what is going on and deciding to opt for peace. Emphasized is the pointlessness of conflict when weighed against the cost. It also identifies who really benefits from wars and how they pull the strings but never pay the bill, “Cos the liars have moved in and they brew their own dark medicine believing it’s good”. The track is filled with drama heightened by the full-throated earnest vocals over a Beatlesque piano. ‘Even a Child” is a twin to “Pour Le Monde” again questioning the reasons for aggression. The premise is even a child knows when something just doesn’t make sense. There is a yearning for a return to common sense and manners, self-respect and making the most of out of life and helping others. With Johnny Marr co-writing the track it is no surprise that the song has spectacular power guitar hooks. This dream duo of Marr and Finn produces an extraordinary selection. The final song of the worldly triad is “Heaven that I’m Making” which really harkens to the 7 Worlds Collide project in its sonics. It is a call to arms demanding each of us commit to making the world a better place, with no room for excuses. It is both funky and gritty in its determination to not look away from the responsibilities to our fellow man making the point, “ If there is hell on Earth, there must be heaven too,…well this heaven that I’m making, it can’t come quickly enough.”
Things again turn more personal with many of the remaining tracks, “A Sigh” commences with a very heart-rendering selection. This song is so simple yet so touching as it describes the sigh and how insufficient it is in revealing the true depth of our sorrow and pain, “ A sigh is more than I can bare, this show is not fooling anyone, but it is all for you, but I think your mind is made up.” The bittersweet melancholy is palpable in a few short verses that will evoke deep emotions. The shimmering accompaniment and beautiful guitar are a perfect pairing in this haunting song.
In 2004 Neil Finn lost his mother and “Silent House” seems a response to her loss and rage against the indignities of old age and death. In the narrative, a now-adult child faces the reminders of a time when a parent was young and sentient and compares it to the elderly parent who is now slipping into oblivion. This loss of facilities is described as an abandoned house once filled with life, “ I will carry on and let you forget, I’ll remember the years when your mind was still clear, all the flickering lights they filled up this silent house.” Finn co-wrote the song with the Dixie Chicks who released their version on “Take a Long Way” in 2006. Finn gives it a rock revamp showcasing this brilliant piece of songwriting with amazing power and unforgettable impact.
From raging against growing old, Crowded House turns to more directly mourning their fallen colleague. “English Trees” is a requiem of sorts for Hester. It attempts to come to grips with his passing and all the things humans do to deal with death, “and though it’s springtime and colour is new, in Regent’s Park I will mourn for you”. It also looks at how each passing is a reminder that our time is advancing to its inevitable conclusion, “nothing is sadder I know then the passing of time”. The song is cathartic as it forgives someone for leaving before their time “Summer’s missed you my darling, yet all your crimes are forgiven”. It expresses Finn’s frustration at not be able to allow himself to give in to his sorrow, maintaining that English attitude that demands reserve at all times, “and I must be wise somehow, cause my heart’s been broken down”. It is a song that has such elegiac beauty it is hard not to tear up.
After the emotions of “English Trees,” the album moves on to two songs that lighten the mood. “Walked Her Way Down” is a bit of a Roman a clef about live performance. It portrays the thrill and dread. The tempo is slow and then explodes in a stadium-filling way to become a monster of a track. To be appreciated is the archway Finn describes the drummer coming in late as usual and the transcendence of performing captured in the lyric, “and I want to feel the weightless grasp upon my heavy life”. It is a nice break from the seriousness of the majority of the songs on the album. The second song of the pair is the quirky “Transit Lounge”. This slice of life tune is illuminated by all the time Finn has spent in such airport lounges; it is a stream of consciousness narrative with the blended insights of various passengers. Underneath is the idea of the ultimate transit lounge of life and the realizations that often times insight comes too late to act upon. The song is a total head fake before the devastating heartbreak of the next track.
“You are the Only One to Make Me Cry” does that for me, it is a song I simply cannot get through without weeping. It is taken from the viewpoint of someone about to commit suicide. On paper, it may seem crass to include this song after Hester’s passing. However, the track is done with such an apt touch and insight it ends up an evocative and heart-rendering creation of understanding and empathy. Captured is all the narrator’s sorrow and burden, the yearning for some other outcome, the regret in not being able to overcome and the seemingly unfortunate inevitability that arrives from giving in to depression, “The night closes in, but not to worry, told everyone I know that I was sorry… If I could only say the word if you could hear me cry for help.” It identifies the brokenness of a psyche exhausted with fighting the enemy depression and being unable to carry the burden any longer, “I have no illusions of where I am now I’ll let this wave take me and draw me down”. Final consciousness is conveyed by disjointed last images and impressions. The accompaniment utilizes minimal instrumentation; the sound of waves crashing, piano, strings and brush drum, adding to this tragic mood is Finn’s voice breaking while singing. It is truly one of the saddest songs ever and with each listen I find myself hoping for a different outcome. Yet catharsis comes from understanding and in that understanding forgiveness for persons forced to this breaking point.
The final track is a pairing with “You are the Only One to Make Me Cry”. “People Are Like Suns” was inspired in part by Ian McEwan’s book Saturday. It is the finale to the emotional journey of the album that has dealt with depression, the sadness of Dementia/Alzheimer’s and death both premature and otherwise. The takeaway is how terrifyingly brief and precious life is captured in the lyric, “People are like suns and they come and they go in a blink of an eye.” The final point is that life is inherently tragic and magnificent both in beauty and pathos. The lyrics mull why we are such divine fools, enduring it all and why we strive to hold on. The song is an incandescent send off to a brilliantly tragic album that demanded to be created in order that the remaining two members of the band could carry on.
There is a certain triumph in the sad topics discussed on Time on Earth. Life in all its inscrutability causes us to pause and attempt to gain perspective. Nobody wants to discuss death but it is inevitable, what is stressed many times by the release is make the most of this sweet madness called life and caring for those who have a harder time carrying the weight of it all. The 14 tracks might seem a bit much, but Finn and Co had a lot to say and work through. Their re-inhabiting of Crowded House was necessary to process the loss of Paul Hester and to carry on the legacy he helped create. The achingly sad songs displayed band members who needed to pay tribute in order to move on.
Crowded House would continue on from Time on Earth releasing Intriguer in 2010 and continue to work on another studio release. Time and the current climate in the record business now allow Crowded House to be a more amorphous entity. This reality enables Finn to continue to release solo albums like 2014’s Dizzy Heights along with his collaborations with his brother Tim, his work with his wife on their Pajama Club releases and still keeping the Crowded House flagship in existence. As a veteran of the musical world, he is now able to take up and cast off the mantle of Crowded House as it suits. This allows him the flexibility to release in whatever form he decides best for his prolific songwriting creations. Time on Earth is a tribute to what had come before and what could never again be replicated, it is also the beginning of something other. It is a masterwork of a tribute to a still much-missed musician gone too soon.